review written by Ro Bennett and read live on the bookshow 22nd May 2015
I read this book when it first came out in 2004. I got the hardback version and it had a beautiful black cover and was very long, very heavy and very expensive.
The book took me ages to read - you can’t really skim it or skip bits - but I found it an interesting and unusual and memorable book, very intricate and absorbing with loads of suspense and unexpected twists and turns.
The novel opens in autumn 1806 with a meeting of The Learned Society of York Magicians, made up of "theoretical magicians" who believe that magic died out several hundred years earlier. The group is stunned to learn of a "practising magician", Mr Gilbert Norrell, who owns a large collection of "books of magic" he has spent years purchasing to keep out of the hands of others.
Mr Norrell subsequently moves to London to revive practical English magic. He enters society with the help of two gentlemen about town and meets a Cabinet minister, Sir Walter Pole. Mr Norrell attempts to recall Sir Walter's fiancée, Emma Wintertowne, from the dead. He summons a fairy—"the gentleman with thistle-down hair” . who strikes a bargain with Mr Norrell to restore Emma but half of her life will be spent with the fairy.
This is an extract which shows the book’s writing style and subtle humour and wit:
"It has been remarked (by a lady infinitely cleverer than the present author) how kindly disposed the world in general feels to young people who either die or marry. Imagine then the interest that surrounded Miss Wintertowne! No young lady ever had such advantages before: for she died upon the Tuesday, was raised to life in the early hours of Wednesday morning, and was married upon the Thursday; which some people thought too much excitement for one week”.
So - after the news spreads of Emma's resurrection and happy marriage to Sir Walter, magic becomes respectable and Mr Norrell performs various feats to aid the government in their ongoing war against Napoleon.
Then, however, Norrell is challenged by the emergence of another magician: the brilliant novice Jonathan Strange. Young, handsome and daring, Strange is the very opposite of Norrell who takes him as a student. So begins a dangerous battle between these two great men which overwhelms the one between England and France. And their own obsessions and secret dabblings with the dark arts are going to cause more trouble than they can imagine.
Thus the reader is drawn into a web of fantasy woven into a story with some of the factual characters of history - Lord Byron, the Duke of Wellington. The Book is divided into three volumes. The first focuses on Mr Norrell, the second introduces Jonathan Strange and the third begins with John Childermass, Mr Norrell's long-time servant, experiencing strong magic that is not produced by either Norrell or Strange but which in due course traps both magicians in Eternal Night.
This section is brimming with action and unexpected dramatic twists and turns, bringing resolution to some problems, but also creating others.
It is a long book and it does take a long time to read. It took ten years to write so as might be expected, it is many layered and the plot and the characters develop with real depth.
It has been nominated, long listed, short listed and won various prestigious Awards which I consider well deserved.
It’s worthwhile taking your time with this book and savouring it. It’s an excellent novel to read during the winter evenings in a little cottage in front of a crackling fire which is how I first enjoyed it.