Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke's debut novel, is both historical and fantastical fiction of the highest caliber. Set primarily in England in the beginning of the nineteenth century, when Napoleon was making maneuvers upon the world, Clarke's novel uses this backdrop as the setting for her version of England. Clarke's England is one where magic and other realms (such as the Faerie realm) are known to exist, and magicians are just as easily famous as military generals.
Into this backdrop comes Gilbert Norrell, a magician who lives in Hurtfew Abbey and, as a rule, does not associate with other magicians and their weekly societies. These societies, according to Norrell, spend more time discussing theories about magic rather than practicing the art. Norrell collects books of magic and has the biggest library of practical magic books ever assembled. Similar to that of Peter Kien, the fanatical collector of books in Elias Canetti's novel Auto-da-Fé(1935), Norrell's library is the envy of every other magician, even more so because Norrell almost never allows others to read the books.
Norrell is contacted several times by the Learned Society of York Magicians and offered an invitation to join, but he refuses. Finally, when he learns that many believe that he is a charlatan, he agrees to a test. He states that he will do a work of magic so outstanding that no one will ever doubt his power again. There is, however, a catch: If he does this work, all the members of the Society of York Magicians must stop calling themselves magicians or studying magic. All except one agree because they think Norrell is bluffing. Sadly for them, though, this is not the case. When Norrell gets the stone statues of the Yorkminster Cathedral to move and talk while he is still at his home, many miles away, the York society realizes that it has lost and disbands. Norrell remains as England's only recognized magician.
As Norrell moves to London and tries to obtain for magic a proper respect in the world, he is contacted by Sir Walter Pole, an acquaintance. Pole's fiancé, Emma Wintertowne, is dead, and Pole wants Norrell to bring her back to life. Norrell agrees. When he is alone with the body he summons forth the gentleman with the thistle-down hair, a fairy whom Norrell binds to do his bidding. The fairy brings Wintertowne back, with a price—one finger is amputated from her and kept in a box—and for his success Norrell is given the chance to work for the government to help defeat Napoleon. Norrell really only wants to publish and bring magic back to the forefront of society, but he agrees, as helping the government with his magic will help bring back magic's legitimacy.
The man with the thistle-down hair is a deviant sort who likes to scheme. When he helps Norrell with Wintertowne, he tells Norrell that he simply wants half of her life. Norrell assumes this means that Wintertowne will live a shorter life than most other women. Actually, the fairy wants the nighttime side of the woman's life, to command and use her as he sees fit. This infuriates Norrell when later he learns that he had been tricked, but it also makes him nervous: As smart and clever as Norrell thinks he has been, the man with the thistle-down hair has been even more cunning.
The fairy uses Wintertowne, now Lady Pole, and her servant, a black man named Stephen Black, as pawns for his personal amusement. They are ordered to go out every night and dance with each other (and the others the fairy has collected over the centuries) at Lost-hope, the fairy's home. The man with the thistle-down hair tells Stephen that he has plans for him, confiding that he will make him the king of everyone, with Lady Pole (for whom Stephen has feelings) as his queen. Black says that he does not want to be king, but the fairy pays no mind and continues scheming.
At the same time,...
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