Saturday, April 20, 2019

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
by Susanna Clarke, 2004

I don’t have much to say that is new about this novel. It’s deservedly quite popular, and the fact that it’s been adapted for TV by the BBC (I have yet to watch) means that it has a cultural reach extending beyond those of us who read 900-page novels. It’s enjoyable, and very English (in a good way), and Susanna Clarke is the kind of writer who can make me feel unironically happy when I turn the page and see a wonderfully long explanatory footnote awaiting me.

But there’s a question that I really have to ask: What about the rest of the world?

Jonathan Strange travels to Portugal and Spain, Belgium and eventually Venice, but the only magicians we ever hear about are English ones (with the exception of a Scottish magician who is briefly discussed late in the book). The specific phrase “English magic” is used dozens of times, but we never hear “French magic” or “Venetian magic”. Magic is something English magicians and English magical beings use on each other. And no one ever remarks on the fact that all the magic in the world seems to center on Great Britain.

This kind of worldbuilding blindspot grates on me, because there’s no good reason for it and it makes the world less interesting than it could otherwise have been. I realize that the novel is specifically focused on England and English magic, but some indications that magic and magicians also exist elsewhere could’ve made the world seem more vibrant and teeming with possibility, and the story could still be focused on England.

Did Napoleon make any efforts to find Continental magicians of suitable talent to counter Strange and Norrell? Do Lisbon and Venice have their own eccentric histories of magic? Are there rumors of magic being done in remote lands such as India and China? Hints in these directions wouldn’t have distracted from Clarke’s story of England, but the world would have seemed richer.

And if all magic in the world does revolve around England (and Scotland), shouldn’t this be seen as noteworthy? Shouldn’t somebody mention that Great Britain is the most magical land in the world? But no, no one ever explicitly says this.

This just seems like bad worldbuilding. It doesn’t spoil the novel for me, but it gives me something to be mildly annoyed about.

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