“The world is not dumb at all, but merely waiting for someone to speak to it in a language it understands.”
There is much that is strange and potent and wonderful in the fourth episode of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and I don’t quite know what to make of it all.
All the Mirrors of the World charts a widening split between the magicians, as Jonathan chafes against the restraints of Mr Norrell’s respectability and seeks out the ancient forms of magic behind the mirrors. It’s interested in madness, and kingship; in forms of constructive and destructive debate; in ways of understanding and knowing and learning. There’s a lot going on, and all of it is enchanting. (I loved the world behind the mirror which we see, briefly, through Jonathan’s eyes: haunting and beautiful and ethereal, exactly as Faerie should be.)
Last week I wrote that the mirror-space of Faerie in the series stands as a metaphor for the racism and sexism latent and repressed in Regency society. Satisfying as this reading is, it unfortunately requires us to see Jonathan Strange as a feminist (as he seeks to lift the lid from the mirror-space, as it were), which, admirable as that gentleman’s virtues are, is probably a step too far.
Instead, I’d say that the mirror-space is a metaphor for everything that is repressed in or excluded from adult society: racism and sexism, yes, but also madness and childishness (the fairytales Mr Norrell despises), dreams and nightmares (where Lady Pole and Stephen Black dance their nights away), old beliefs and old stories; everything that gets excluded when we impose order on disorder, when social rules begin to regulate “normal” human experience. So while Norrell’s unhealthy approach is to ignore that space, to push it out of sight and out of mind through rules and respectability – and, in the process, creating casualties like Lady Pole, driven mad by what society can’t or won’t acknowledge – Jonathan’s is to turn towards the unknown and make it known, to look at and use all this troubling mass of society’s unconsciousness to make things better for everyone.
It’s a powerful defence of fantasy and fairytale, albeit one which asks us to deconstruct those genres: what we exclude from normality tells us something about ourselves, about why we consider normality to be normal. It’s why Jonathan’s first book of magic is A Child’s History of the Raven King, and why we can imagine Jonathan sitting down to read Robinson Crusoe while Mr Norrell wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole. And it’s why Jonathan can envisage a future for magic, and, in fact, human relations in general, that involves truthful exchange of opinion (because he allows himself to imagine alternative societies, alternative respectabilities) while Mr Norrell can barely comprehend the idea that anyone could contradict him. Jonathan sees many possible truths, Mr Norrell only one.
As you may have gathered, I liked this episode very much. It feels more fantastical and more magically charged than any of the previous episodes, and it feels more relevant, too; it’s at this point in the narrative that it’s beginning to tell us something about ourselves as well as something about Regency society. My urge to punch Mr Norrell in the face grows ever stronger, as does my sympathy for poor Lady Pole; the relationship between Arabella and Jonathan becomes increasingly more real and more lovely; the thistledown gentleman’s plans increase in obscurity and insidiousness. I can’t wait to see what Sunday brings.