The action of this lengthy bestseller takes place in the first twenty years of the 19th century, when the two titular characters attempt a revival of magic in the British Isles. After several hundred years of dormancy, “practical magic” is making a comeback—just in time to serve England’s interests in the Napoleonic Wars—but will the resurgence prove a blessing or a curse?
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is the only novel of its kind that I’ve ever encountered—a work at once of fantasy and of historical fiction that nevertheless seeks to replicate the realist style and comic sensibility of authors of the century in which it’s set (think Austen or Thackeray or Dickens). In combining these elements, Clarke carries out a daring experiment that doesn’t really seem as if it should work. But the result is an unexpected alchemical triumph.
I would recommend Clarke’s novel to lovers of fantasy and lovers of 19th-century literature alike, but its ideal audience consists of those who love both. Its greatest pleasures depend on an acquaintance with the historical context that forms its backdrop and with the literary tradition that Clarke mimics and gently parodies.