Hands up who’s been watching ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’?
When in 2004, Susanna Clarke’s ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ was published with triumphant fanfare, it was like ‘The Beatles’ explosion but in the world of publishing. At the time, I was sceptical that a novel about magic for adults could live up to such effervescent acclaim, and as I tend to avoid the kind of fantasy fiction that might warrant an accompanying soundtrack of Marillion or worse, early medieval lute music, I read it out of curiosity rather than for pleasure.
Did it live up to the hype? It certainly did. I was dazzled by it. Like discovering a previously unpublished work of Dickens, it read like an authentic 19th Century English novel. It was full of vividly drawn eccentric characters and to my great relief, I found its style to be more historical novel (or rather alternative historical novel) than pointy-shoe infested fantasy. The novel is notated with extensive background details of the history of magic in England, giving it a faux lustre of academia that I really relished, and the breadth of vision was astounding. The only thing I found unbelievable was that an author could write such a rich and accomplished work as their first novel. Then for some inexplicable reason, the hubbub surrounding its publication faded and it all went quiet.
So, when I saw a trailer for the BBC adaptation a decade later, I wondered why it had taken so long for such an amazing book to hit the screen. Who knows what factors go into deciding these things? At least we can be thankful that it’s in the capable hands of the Beeb. Indeed, on the strength of the first two episodes, I think they’re doing a grand job. I’m really enjoying the twists and turns of the plot, the play on the north and south divide, the International political events which bring the renewed practice of magic to light, and the relationship between lifelong theoretician Mr Norrell and the naturally gifted Jonathan Strange.
The production is sumptuous, and from the first episode, I was hooked. I’m a great fan of Eddie Marsan as an actor and his casting as Mr Norrell is inspired, as is cheeky cockney chappy Marc Warren as the Gentleman. The adaptation is eerily beautiful with its palette of slate, smoke and dove grey, and it makes me want to dig out my copy of a novel to enjoy it once more. Surely, there can be no better commendation than that – and if you didn’t get round to reading it the first time, add it to your reading pile immediately – you’ll thank me for it!