Plot Summary from Goodreads:
At the dawn of the nineteenth century, two very different magicians emerge to change England's history. In the year 1806, with the Napoleonic Wars raging on land and sea, most people believe magic to be long dead in England--until the reclusive Mr Norrell reveals his powers, and becomes a celebrity overnight.
Soon, another practicing magician comes forth: the young, handsome, and daring Jonathan Strange. He becomes Norrell's student, and they join forces in the war against France. But Strange is increasingly drawn to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic, straining his partnership with Norrell, and putting at risk everything else he holds dear.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is long, a door stopper of a book clocking in at a whopping 1006 pages, and I could have kept reading for hundreds more pages. It is a unique thing, Dickensian, with elements of created history, footnoted like a text-book, with occasional dreamlike qualities. But, most of all, it is a love letter to books and reading and readers and libraries.
Over and over, Clarke references the importance of books to her two main characters, Norrell and Strange.1 In some ways, these two men are polar opposites, with Norrell standing for exclusion, for conservatism, and for control, and with Strange taking the liberal position of inclusivity, of opening up magic for the use of everyone. The fact that Norrell essentially strips England of access to magic by controlling access to books is monumentally important.
She talks about books in a way that acknowledges their importance. Up until Norrell, magic was something that existed only in books about magic:
"If they asked Norrell to do magic, there was always the danger that he might indeed do some. They did not want to see magic done; they only wished to read about it in books."
Norrell collects all of the books of magic (as opposed to about magic) and hides them away in his library at Hurtfew Abbey, allowing no one access to the books, including his pupil, Strange.2 He goes so far as to magically prevent Strange from publishing his book, altering all of the copies except for the one that he possesses and Strange's own book. When there is a falling out between Strange and Norrell, Norrell attempts to tempt him back into the fold by offering him access to the forbidden riches of his library. Strange, in fact, attempts to persuade parliament to pass a law forcing Norrell to give him access to books.
And, at the end of the book, the very last line, when Strange describes what he will be doing after the story closes, Clarke advises us: "He considered a moment and then laughed. "Think of me with my nose in a book!"
There are so many references and styles used by Clarke that it would take more than simply one reading to understand them all. Both Arabella3 and Lady Pole have distinctly Austenesque qualities to their characters. Of course, there are also Dickensian elements, and the distinction between North England (magical, fey) and the more prosaic South England echoes Elizabeth Gaskell.4
I know that there were a lot people who hated the footnotes, but for me, I loved them and felt that they added tremendously to the experience of reading the book. In some ways, they reminded me of the appendices to Lord of the Rings, creating an immersiveness and completeness to the world building that is a unique and remarkable accomplishment.
I have heard that Clarke intends to write another book in the same world, but focusing on Childermass and Vinculus (and hopefully Segundus, as well). Childermass is the Severus Snape of the tale to me - incomprehensible, with motivations that are unclear, and an importance that is obvious but not quite understandable, but interesting. I would love to read more in this world, and wait hopefully for the story to continue.
1 I find Clarke's ordering of names in the title to be very interesting. Her placement of Jonathan Strange first, when Mr. Norrell makes his appearance in the book first, is telling us, I believe, that Strange is the more important of the two characters. I am clearly a Strangeite.
2 In fact, he spends much time debating with himself over precisely which books are safe to show to Strange. He wants a pupil, but he is quite determined to remain master, and not allow his student to exceed him in knowledge. In spite of this determination, Strange turns out to be a much better and more proficient practical magician that Norrell.
3. Arabella, in particular, reminds me of Emma, right down to her last name of Woodhope, as opposed to Woodhouse, and her propensity to reform the people around her: "It was not that she did not love him; he was quite certain that she did, but sometimes it seemed as if she had fallen in love with him for the sole purpose of quarrelling with him. He was quite at a loss to account for it. He believed that he had done everything she wanted in the way of reforming his behaviour. His card-playing and other sorts of gambling had dwindled away almost to nothing and he drank very little now – scarcely more than a bottle a day. He had told her that he had no objection to going to church more if that would please her – as often, say, as once a week – twice, if she would like it better – but she said that she would leave such matters to his own conscience, that they were not the sort of thing that could be dictated by another person. He knew that she disliked his frequent visits to Bath, Brighton, Weymouth and Cheltenham and he assured her that she had nothing to fear from the women in those places – doubtless they were very charming, but they were nothing to him. She said that was not what concerned her. That had not even occurred to her. It was just that she wished he could find a better way to occupy his time. She did not mean to moralize and no one loved a holiday better than her, but perpetual holidays! Was that really what he wanted? Did that make him happy?"
4. See, generally, North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell.