Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: The Friends of English Magic

Jonathan StrangeA young man pours some water into a brass basin while two maids secretly spy on him. He breaks some a pipe into the bowl and murmurs something over the bowl, but nothing happens. He seems disappointed. The pipe is added to a pile of similar, broken ones. He leaves, breezing past the servants, and heads out into the city of York.

This is Mr Segundus, and he’s come to York to meet with The Society of Learned Magicians, which gets together regularly to read dull papers about the history of magic. They’re ‘gentleman magicians’, and the term is similar to ‘gentleman farmer’ in that they do none of the practical work associated with their title. Segundus sits down with them and talks about how much he’s studied magic. He wonders why practical magic is no longer done in England, especially now that the Napoleonic wars are raging and England could really use some magic on the battlefield. The leader of the group informs him that magicians study magic, they don’t create it. After all, you wouldn’t expect a botanist to create a new flower, right (uh, yeah, I would, actually) or an astronomer to create a star (I’d expect an astronomer to discover one, since creating one him or herself is impossible). Clearly, this man’s an idiot. But the others all agree with him. Well, all but one man.

The next day, that man, Honeyfoot, catches up with Segundus outside a bookseller’s and hears the young man’s after books of magic, which York seems pretty much out of. He stops at another rather cool looking bookseller and hears that the books he had reserved have been sold out from underneath him. Segundus sends the bookseller to find something else and looks up the purchaser of his books in the ledger. It’s a Mr Norrell.

[cryout-pullquote align=”right” textalign=”left” width=”33%”]They’re ‘gentleman magicians’, and the term is similar to ‘gentleman farmer’ in that they do none of the practical work associated with their title[/cryout-pullquote]Segundus and Honeyfoot drive to Norrell’s beautiful estate and talk magic. Honeyfoot, too, wants to see more practical work done. Segundus shows him a spell he bought from a conjurer in London, which does not seem to be working. Imagine that. But the conjurer told Segundus that magic would be restored to England by two magicians, though Segundus is not one of those men.

They arrive at the house and the door is opened by the resident creepy manservant, Childermass, who shows the men to the library. My brain just keeps screaming ‘WANT! SO, SO MUCH!’ as I drink in that room with its pillars and tall windows and bookshelves and ladders. Norrell, a fairly grave man who clearly isn’t used to interacting much with people who aren’t Childermass, is familiar with some of Segundus’s work and is somewhat complimentary. Segundus, too, drools over the library, and he and Honeyfoot realise it’s packed with books of magic, which are hugely rare. They ask Norrell if they may look at some of them and he gives them the go-ahead. They can’t believe the riches. Childermass leans against a pillar, casually watching. Segundus and Honeyfoot exposit for us that it’s believed magic in England died out three hundred years before, and they want to know why there’s no magic done in the country anymore. Maybe because around the time it died out people who did magic were burned alive for it? I’d stop doing it too, if my life was at that sort of risk. Norrell informs them that magic has not ended in England. In fact, he is a fairly tolerable practical magician. And then he sends them away.

They scurry back to the Society and tell them about Norrell, only to have their claims dismissed. The leader says the only thing to do is to invite Norrell to prove he can do magic, and if he can’t, he’d better shut up.

The men are gathered at York Minster late at night, where they’re met by Childermass, who speaks for Norrell. Through him, Norrell promises that, if he fails, he’ll retract his claim to being a magician and swears never to make such a claim again. He’s signed a paper stating that and everything. And he wants all the men there to sign the same paper and make the same promise if he succeeds. That is, they’ll give up any claims to being magicians. They all sign, most of them because they don’t believe Norrell can do magic, though Honeyfoot proclaims he believes Norrell will be a success and he hopes he’ll use his powers to help the nation in this time of war. Only Segundus refuses, because magic is his life and he can’t bear the thought of having to give it up. Childermass gives him a pass and they all go into the Minster.

Inside, because nothing happens instantly, the Society starts to declare Norrell a fake, but Norrell, back at his home, pours water into a metal basin, holds his hand over it, and back at the Minster there’s a deep cracking sound, and the carved statues all over the place start to come to life, playing instruments, chattering, spilling the secrets of what they’ve witnessed there over the centuries. It’s not a bad bit of special effects, but for some reason some of these things kind of remind me of Muppets. Some of the Society members flee in panic. After a couple of minutes, the spell ends. Norrell flops into a chair, exhausted. Childermass pockets his document. Segundus is delighted.

The Society is disbanded as Childermass watches and tells Segundus he’s kinda sorry about this. Segundus isn’t, because it means magic is restored to England. He asks if Norrell would be offended if he wrote about this to the newspapers. Yes, Segundus, because he seems like a guy who’s really willing and eager to bring attention to himself and his gift. Childermass says he’s pretty sure Norrell wouldn’t be happy about it, but maybe it’s time he was pushed a bit. He adds that it’s time for Norrell to go to London, and that’s where Childermass intends to take him. Is this guy like Jeeves, the way he runs his master’s life? Honeyfoot wonders how the second magician will act, if this is what the first is like.

Now it’s time to meet the second one, Jonathan Strange, who’s a bit of a scamp. He gallops up to a country church, where a young vicar is saying the service, and spies through the window at the vicar’s sister, his girlfriend Arabella. Vicar (Henry) sort of rolls his eyes. After the service, Jonathan catches brother and sister up and lies that he was at the back. He and Arabella go for a walk and he tries to talk her into marrying him, since he’s reforming: he barely plays cards and hardly drinks more than a bottle a day! And she has nothing to fear from the ladies of Bath and Brighton. She laughs that she couldn’t care less about that, she just wishes Jonathan would find some way to occupy his time that isn’t partying. By the way, she’s played by the actress who played Caris in World Without End. Nice to see her again. This programme is a veritable smorgasboard of ‘oh, hey, it’s that actor from…something’ moments. Arabella tells him that she’s going to help Henry settle into his new parish, so she’ll be gone for a bit. Jonathan kneels to propose, but she stops him and tells him to spend the time apart thinking and pulling himself together.

He goes to his father and asks him for something useful to do. His harsh father pauses to scold his manservant, who’s sick because he’s being made to stand in front of the open window (it’s winter) and then tells his son he’s weak and useless and he won’t be giving him anything to do. The manservant passes out and Jonathan goes to help him, but his father snaps at him to leave the man and yells at the man to get back on his feet and stand in front of that window. The man struggles back to his feet and returns to his post.

Jonathan sits down with Henry and grouses about how unlucky he’s been at finding a job. He bought an ironworks, but the smelting room gave him a headache, and set about collecting fossils at Lyme Regis, but it rains too much there. His father delights in torturing Jonathan as much as he loves torturing the servants and Jonathan’s late mother. Henry says that God will provide somehow. Jonathan sincerely says that the only thing he’s ever really wanted was Henry’s sister. Henry tells him to have some faith and leaves to catch the coach to his new parish.

Jonathan wakes the next morning with a considerable hangover and someone pounding on his bedroom door. It’s another manservant, summoning him to his father’s study, because something’s not right. Jonathan shoulders open the door and finds that poor, sick manservant collapsed on the other side. He helps the man, slams the windows, and realizes his father’s dead at his desk. Ding dong, the dick is dead! I’m sure there is much lamenting throughout the land.

The man is buried, and Jonathan manages to hide his glee. He’s the only mourner, if you can even call him that, and he leaves with a smile on his face as the man is put in the ground.

He receives a letter from Arabella, which he reads aloud to the manservant, who’s convalescing in front of the fire, probably trying to thaw out for the first time in years. He’s excited to have an occupation now and wonders how long it would be appropriate for him to wait before going up to Cumberland to ask for her hand.

Norrell and Childermass arrive in London. Childermass is reading a gossip bit in the paper about Norrell’s plans to take up residence in the city and, hopefully, perform more magic after ‘The Miracle of York.’ Norrell likes the sound of that. He doesn’t much like London so far, though, nor does he like the illustration of a ‘magician’ that’s been printed in the paper. They drive past a conjurer, Vinculus, performing on the street and Norrell sneers at him and comments that such people give magic a bad name. Childermass says Norrell’s there to change all that. They stop at Westminster and Childermass gives him a bit of a pep talk before letting him out to meet Sir Walter Pole, the secretary of state for war.

Pole, who’s played by the actor who plays Frank Edwards in Mr Selfridge, is taking a bit of a drubbing in the chamber by a member of the opposition. He fobs the man off and says the army will not be retreating anytime soon, even though things are going rather poorly on the Continent. As he leaves the chamber, Norrell tries to catch him, only to be stopped by Pole’s manservant, who asks that Norrell meet with Pole at his home.

[cryout-pullquote align=”left” textalign=”left” width=”33%”] If Pole can’t see how having a magician on your side during a devastating war would be helpful, he’s tragically unimaginative[/cryout-pullquote]Norrell goes to Pole’s place, where Pole politely greets him and Pole’s future mother-in-law asks where Norrell’s fairy servants are. Norrell informs her that he doesn’t work with them, because their help always comes with a price. Pole says he’s relieved to see that Norrell is a theoretical and not a practical magician. How has he figured that? Because Norrell didn’t just show up and start casting spells left and right? Norrell sets him straight and mentions his small feat of practical magic in York and offers his help in fighting Napoleon. Pole can’t see how he could possibly help with that. If he can’t see how having a magician on your side during a devastating war would be helpful, he’s tragically unimaginative. And stupid. Pole goes on to say that he’s heard about York and is sure the housewives were grateful, but war is another matter. Norrell’s like, ‘WTF are you talking about? I made 50 stone figures come to life, it had nothing to do with housewives.’

A woman sitting in the corner starts coughing and Pole introduces her as his fiancée, Miss Wintertown. She’s played by the actress who played Beth in the horrible New Worlds. She croaks that she’s fond of magic herself. She’s a fan of Vinculus. Norrell dismisses street magicians as charlatans and Miss W’s mother rudely says that all magicians are charlatans. Pole adds that magic is not respectable and the government can’t be seen to meddle in such matters. Norrell is dismissed.

Back in the carriage, Childermass asks how it went. Norrell tries to lie that it was fine, but Childermass knows he’s lying. Norrell notices they’re not going the correct way home and Childermass tells him he’s going to a party, because powerful people spend their time at parties and he has to start making friends with these powerful people. Norrell pouts a little, but he goes.

The party is hell for him. It’s crowded with fashionable people drinking and laughing and talking about Norrell and how he magically did some laundry or something up in York. How the heck did that rumour get started? Norrell fights his way through the crowd and shuts himself in an empty room, looking for some peace. But he’s not there a minute before two gentlemen, Drawlight and Lascelles (the actor playing Lascelles played Capshaw in Ripper Street and General Lord Thomas in Outlander), come in complaining that the promised magician hasn’t materialized to provide the entertainment. Drawlight pretends to know Norrell (though he mispronounces his name), and Norrell speaks up, introducing himself. Drawlight tries to play it off, though Lascelles clearly smells the BS. Drawlight tells Norrell he’s been preparing the way for him and the party is all for him. ‘Yes, I’m becoming aware of that,’ Norrell says drily. Drawlight goes to introduce him to the other guests, asking him to perform a trick or two while he’s there. He calls everyone to attention and introduces ‘The Magician of Hanover Square’, only to learn that Norrell has fled the party.

Norrell escapes through a side door, but finds Vinculus waiting for him out in the street. Vinculus says he has a book written by the Raven King that told him all about Norrell. His coming was foretold long ago and now he’s there to explain his destiny, as written in his book. Norrell says the Raven King was a charlatan. Vinculus starts reciting the prophecy of John Uskglass—part of it anyway:

Two magicians shall appear in England.
The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me;
The first shall be governed by thieves and murderers; the second shall conspire at his own destruction;
The first shall bury his heart in a dark wood beneath the snow, yet still feel its ache;
The second shall see his dearest possession in his enemy’s hand.
The first shall pass his life alone; he shall be his own gaoler;
The second shall tread lonely roads, the storm above his head, seeking a dark tower
upon a high hillside.

It ends with a promise from the Raven King to return. Vinculus strolls away and Norrell shouts for Childermass.

Once he’s back home, Norrell tells Childermass he wants Vinculus run out of London. If the man has a book from the Raven King, Norrell wants it, and then he wants to go home to Yorkshire. Childermass tells him that he can’t just run away if he wants to make magic respectable again. Norrell ignores him and writes down some spells for Childermass to use against Vinculus.

Childermass goes to Vinculus’s distinctive yellow tent and watches him plying his spells from afar for a bit. After a while, he gets distracted and looks away just long enough for Vinculus to sneak up on him and find the spells in his pocket. They repair to the tent for a chat. Childermass starts dealing tarot cards and casts Vinculus’s fortune: Vinculus has apparently decided to take a journey and deliver a message to someone. He may meet with an ordeal and could die. Vinculus is not alarmed by that. He gathers up the cards and offers to tell Norrell’s fortune. He flips one card and reveals the king, with a raven hovering over him. Childermass turns over another card and it’s the same, which is odd because there’s only one king in the pack. All the cards are raven kings now, though. Vinculus tells him that the raven is coming, and his spell is about to be cast. He cackles as he leaves the tent, and Childermass hurtles after him, only to find him gone.

Meanwhile, Drawlight and Lascelles pay a visit to Norrell. They notice servants packing up Norrell’s things and Drawlight urges him to stay, advising he just perform at least one little tiny spell to prove to these powerful men that he can actually do something. Norrell shortly tells them he’s not interested in attending parties, he offered his services and was turned down, so now he’s going back to Yorkshire. The two men get up to leave and mention that Miss Winterdown has just died, depriving Pole of her £1000 a year, which he desperately needed. Norrell’s brain starts working in a rather creepy and bizarre way as he murmurs that it’s a dangerous thing to bring someone back from the dead. The other two men look alarmed, and Lascelles, in some horror, tells Norrell that nobody was suggesting such a terrible thing. But Norrell’s stuck on this idea now and talks around it, but then decides not to go ahead, since the outcome can be very unpredictable. Drawlight jumps in and tells him not to strain himself, but if he did manage this, everyone in England would adore him. Would they? This sounds kind of horrifying. Drawlight adds that such an opportunity is unlikely to come up again (let’s hope not) and that Norrell could bring back a sweet lady whose death has brought a tear to many an eye (Lascelles gives a hilarious side-eye to that line). Norrell warns them that this type of magic is dangerous to both magician and subject. Lascelles points out that the subject is dead, so how much danger could she possibly be in? Norrell agrees to send for some more books and see what he can find.

Jonathan’s out for a ride in a fabulous hat, accompanied by the now recovered manservant. They see some local peasants going after someone and arm themselves with branches to intervene. The man they’re stalking is Vinculus, who takes one look at Jonathan and tells him that he’s the second magician he’s been seeking. He starts reciting the prophecy again and Jonathan says none of this sounds fun, so maybe he should choose someone else? Not how prophecies work, I’m afraid. Vinculus offers to sell him some spells so he can give this magic thing a whirl. Jonathan clearly thinks ‘eh, why not?’ and hands over some change in exchange for them.

[cryout-pullquote align=”right” textalign=”left” width=”33%”]Now, most girls would hear something like that and think less ‘commit to him’ and more ‘have him committed’ but not Arabella![/cryout-pullquote]He continues on his journey to Henry’s new parish, where he has dinner with Arabella and her brother and tells them how he plans to take on his father’s estate. Arabella’s surprised, since he was always bored by farming. So, he switches to magic and tells her he’ll study that, because a man under a hedge told him he was a magician. Now, most girls would hear something like that and think less ‘commit to him’ and more ‘have him committed’ but not Arabella! She thinks this is a joke, so he hands over the spells and she takes a look. They’re the spells Norrell gave Childermass, to get Vinculus out of London. Jonathan decides to give them a go and asks for a mirror and something dead. He gets what he needs, follows the instructions on the spells, and what do you know, it works! In the mirror they can see a ceiling that is not their own. Jonathan starts moving the mirror around and they realize they’re looking into someone else’s room. It’s Norrell’s; they can see him reading by the fire. They wonder who he is, guessing he’s some sort of banker or something, because he looks serious.

Norrell arrives at Poles house, accompanied by Drawlight, and solemnly tells Pole that he’d love to have him in the room as a witness, but this type of magic needs to be done alone. Pole agrees and sends him upstairs to the bedroom where she’s laid out. Lascelles and Drawlight wait outside and Lascelles jokes about writing a play about this affair, calling it ‘Tis a Pity she’s a Corpse.’

In the bedroom, Norrell opens a giant book, lights a taper, and starts silently saying words as he touches the taper to a candle. Wind blows and there’s a creaking sound, and when he turns he sees a man with white hair—a fairy, apparently, and not a fun Disney-type fairy, either—standing behind him. (Hi Danny from Hustle!) This man is referred to as The Gentleman, and he asks Norrell who he is. Norrell, a bit panicked, says he’s the man destined to restore magic to England. Gentleman says that much is clear, since otherwise Gentleman would not be there. He asks who Norrell’s master is and Norrell says he’s self-taught, from books, which are quite helpful. Gentleman turns to Miss W and asks what he gets in return for bringing her back to life. Norrell stammers and Gentleman continues that he wants to help teach Norrell, but Norrell will have to tell everyone that many of his greatest achievements are due in large part to Gentleman. Norrell isn’t interested in joining forces with this guy, so Gentleman calls him ungrateful and suggests he may speak to the other magician. Norrell’s confused, since he knows of no other magicians.

Gentleman lights on some other form of payment: the companionship of Miss W. He asks for half her life in exchange for his help. Norrell asks how long that would be and Gentleman asks how long he wants. Another 75 years. Gentleman agrees. So, half of that will be his, and he takes something of hers to signify his claim. He holds out his hand and takes whatever it is, promising Norrell he’ll go away after this and Norrell need never see him again.

Miss W starts screaming, bringing Pole and her mother running. They burst into the room and Miss W takes in a deep breath and stands up, scolding her fiancé for not telling her how unwell she was. She’s quite recovered now and asks Pole to dance. Her mother notices that part of her smallest finger is missing. Emma shrugs and is pretty much like, ‘eh, I wasn’t using it.’ She and the delighted Pole begin dancing around the room.

Norrell hurries into his carriage while Drawlight shouts about his success into the night.

Entertainingly quirky so far. According to my husband (who made it through about 500 pages of the book before giving up), this one episode was about 400 pages of the novel. Apparently there was quite a bit of fat that could be trimmed. Here’s hoping they keep things as tight moving forward.



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