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Arts and Letters

People are Strange (when you’re M. Norrell).

Well, I must confess, when I had first heard that Mrs. Clarke’s new tome, detailing the illustrious and somewhat murky history of those wily English magicians Strange & Norrell, may rival Tolkien and Peake in its depth and prodigiousness, I could not refrain from shewing my surprize to the other guests at last month’s gala ball for the Historians-in-Training, an offense which may work to keep me off the social rolls for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, in spite of this inadvertent affront to polite academic society, I immediately alighted to the booksellers of Mr. Barnes & Mr. Noble to procure a copy of this well-received book, arguably the most important work on matters of European prestidigitation since Strange’s own The History and Practice of English Magic. (No disrespect to M. Segundus intended. I find his works on magic very illuminating, but they’re entirely too theoretical for my taste.)

And the verdict? Well, those hardy and deluded souls suggesting Mr. Tolkien‘s work of years past has now been surpassed should aspire to do more reading of the fantastical sort. Nevertheless, Mrs. Clarke’s work is a delightful and compulsively readable fantasy-of-manners that, as others have noted, effortlessly blends the genre milieu of Mrs. Rowling with the authorial voice of the nineteenth century British novel. Her sketches of those enigmatic souls Mssrs. Norrell & Strange, as well as such Dickensian personae as Mssrs. Childermass, Drawlight, Lascelles, and Pole, are for the most part convincing, as are her disquisitions on such otherwise notable figures as Lords Wellington and Byron.

Mrs. Clarke’s work is particularly successful in capturing the peculiarly English quality of Strange & Norrell’s history. Indeed, from the chilly, funereal melancholy that pervades the Faerie court of Lost-Hope to the circuitous rituals of courtship that have always defined our Atlantic brethren, the book headily invokes those days soon after the Napoleonic Wars when the thaumaturgic spirit of the Raven King reawoke throughout the villages, fields, copses, and moors of John Bull. In this emphasis and intertwining of magic and national character, I was often reminded of American Gods by Mr. Gaiman, who has heretofore expressed great admiration for Mrs. Clarke’s project. (Speaking of which, as a student of the former Colonies, I do wish Mrs. Clarke had taken more seriously the considerable contributions to the Magickal Arts made by Americans at this historical moment, but perhaps that is a matter left to scholars of our own Republic.)

Despite this lapse, however, Mrs. Clarke’s timely chronicle more than lives up to the high bar we’ve come to expect from Cantabridgian historians of magic. I highly recommend this treatise to those of you even remotely curious about the British magical renaissance of two centuries ago, and particularly if you want your understanding of the subject unsullied by the forthcoming film from New Line Cinema. (In that regard, perhaps Mssrs. Holm and Bettany can be prevailed upon to depict Norrell & Strange respectively…)

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