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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 365

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The novel is a fantasy about magic, war, and espionage set in Europe during the Napoleonic era. The two title characters are both magicians. Mr. Norrell soon becomes an established figure among London’s magician circles, and Jonathan Strange is a young upstart. Norrell’s success, initially through personal works for influential patrons, builds quickly through its military-political applications. Strange, initially without any experience or even interest in magic, is later recruited to assist him. Conflicts of personality, style, and philosophy shape both their interactions and the success of their works in service of the British Crown. The characters of Lady Pole and Stephen Black, a servant of African heritage, provide the counterpoint to the main plot, as an ill-intentioned magical creature manipulates them for his dark desires.

Mr. Norrell comes to prominence by assisting Sir Walter Pole and his fiancée, the fair Miss Wintertowne, who dies a week before their wedding. Pole and his friends persuade Mr. Norrell to use his magic to bring her back to life. Norrell accepts reluctantly and achieves this feat with the aid of a mysterious apparition called “the gentleman with the thistle-down hair.” In exchange for helping Norrell, the apparition's condition is that he henceforth will own half her life. To symbolize his claim, this gentleman initially takes the little finger of her left hand. Although technically alive, the young lady—now Lady Pole—has no interest in life.

In addition, as the thistle-hair gentleman recruits Lady Pole and the servant Stephen, their nightly adventures together take them in and out of alternate realities to which other mortals have no access. Their individual and combined fates, especially whether they will permanently escape or be swallowed up in the other world, provide another layer of suspense. The ethical obligations of the magicians, especially Norrell who apparently made a Faustian pact, are related dilemmas to resolve.

Author Susanna Clarke is remarkably effective in creating multiple fantasy worlds. She creates not only the alternate historical realities of a radically changed European political landscape, in which magical rather than worldly skill turned the tide of events, but also the personal worlds and inner torments of the characters seem both wholly believable.