Rereadings: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
When Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell first came out, I noticed it right away. With its black cover featuring a stark white raven silhouette, it was hard to ignore on a table of new releases filled with flashy, colorful covers. Strange was an exercise in graphic design restraint and I was immediately drawn to it. I picked it up, read the inside jacket text, yawned at the mention of “magicians,” flipped idly through the pages, closed it, looked at the cover again somewhat longingly, and put it back on the new release table. And I walked away.
It is entirely possible that in the history of new release tables and people looking at books on them, no one will ever regret walking away from that table more than I do. And, I am deeply sorry to admit, I did it again. Four times. Four times over the course of three years I saw it, picked it up, leafed through it, and did not buy it. Once I even bought it for my then-boyfriend’s brother without reading it myself. Apparently it was good enough to give but not good enough to read. And in so doing (or not doing) for three years, I missed out on what would end up being one of my all-time favorite books.
When I started thinking about rereading books, Strange immediately presented itself. After my three-year inexplicable resistance to the book and on my fifth time noticing it and picking it up (by this time on the discount table rather than the new release table), I got fed up with my own lengthy dithering and bought it immediately. I took it home and read it with equal alacrity. And I adored it. I raced through it over the course of one J-term in college and then devoured The Ladies of Grace Adieu when I finished. I couldn’t get enough. But I have not read it since. Those who have had the pleasure of reading Strange will undoubtedly know why: it is huge. It weighs almost three pounds and is 800 pages long. I am sorry to say that no matter how excellent a book, length often prevents me from rereading it. Result: Strange fell by the wayside for another three years.
So on the sixth anniversary of the book first catching my eye, I picked it up again. This was the time. I was going to reread Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell come hell or high water. And so I really tried. I’ve been plugging away at it for most of March with little to show for my efforts. As of today, I am about half-way through. As much as I love it, you have to admit Strange‘s three pounds is not exactly conducive to taking on the subway or to the beach or really anywhere except my own living room. And so I did not finish this rereading quite in time to write about the whole experience, but I did get enough of the way through to be thoroughly re-enchanted by Susanna Clarke’s masterwork.
Strange is, even more than I remember it being, remarkably witty, funny, and filled equally with pleasing historic details and wholly invented “history of English magic” asides and/or footnotes. I actually found myself stifling sniggers on the few occasions I did lug it on the subway and grinning widely as I read it on my roof. I remembered Strange as an interesting historical novel with dashes of invented history and nonfictional flourishes, but I had forgotten that it was genuinely funny, too.
Along with the humor, I also fully realized how fond I was many of the supporting characters in the novel. I found that I truly loved Arabella (Strange’s long-suffering wife), was quite fond of Mr. Segundus (Strange’s biographer), and felt deeply for Stephen Black (a servant). The first time around, I was so excited by the book that I raced through it and hardly stopped to take note of how well-written it was and how fully-formed every part of the book is. On rereading it, I truly appreciated how carefully Clarke crafted each character, even the relatively minor ones, and made them into fully-formed people.
I think rereading Strange slowly and even not finishing it quite yet really improved the book, if that is possible. My first reading was a passionate and excitable sprint, but my rereading turned out to be something akin to a delightful weekend stroll through an old grove you once loved. The best part is realizing you still do.