Jonathan Strange Review: Arabella

To sit and pass hour after hour in idle chatter with a roomful of strangers is to me the worst sort of torment.

Susanna Clarke


I actually felt nervous about watching this one. Because I knew, just knew, that something horrible was going to happen, and I couldn’t remember what it was because I read the book like three years ago, and THE TENSION.

I was right, of course. Something horrible does happen: the prophecy about Jonathan Strange comes true.

The second shall see his dearest possession in his enemy’s hand.

The thistledown gentleman steals Arabella Strange away for his own using the classic changeling trick; and Jonathan unwittingly seals the deal, as it were, thinking he’s talking to a distraught and delirious Arabella when actually he’s talking to a construct made from a log of wood:

“Do you renounce all other wives?”

Yes, yes, of course I do!”

The point of all this, obviously, is that while we know what Jonathan is doing, he doesn’t: dramatic irony, a patriarchy that binds women into contractual obligations in which they have largely no say coming back to bite itself, the dark mirror-world of Faerie, full of all that is oppressed and ignored and rancid, preying on the society that generates it. It’s a great scene, actually, full of pathos and horror and a certain fairytale simplicity, a rightness, that’s very hard to capture.

But then Arabella’s double dies, and this is where everything gets a little uncomfortable for me. Again, the dramatic irony comes into play: we know that Arabella, the real Arabella, is alive, dancing her life away in the land of Lost Hope. Jonathan doesn’t. And my question is: isn’t Jonathan’s grief a little manipulative? What does it mean, if we know that it’s not actually true, that the whole thing is going to be undone in the next episode? I suspect I’m not going to be able to answer this question until I actually watch the next episode, because I can’t remember what happens, but I wonder if the point, or part of it, is that the kind of contract which trades women away as if they are goods causes suffering which is, exactly, pointless and unnecessary.

This is why I love writing these posts. I already couldn’t wait for the next episode, for further glimpses of the King’s Roads and John Uskglass and the worlds of Faerie, for the freeing of Lady Pole and the restoration of Arabella and the comeuppance of Lascelles and all the wonderful things that must happen at the end of a fairytale. And now I can’t wait even more: I can’t wait to see where the show goes with this, what conclusions it comes to about magic and the mirror-land, and will Sunday just hurry up and arrive already.

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