Jonathan Strange Review: The Black Tower

I shall teach all the women and all the poor men magic. I will give England back its heritage.”

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

OK, so, it turns out there are seven parts to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, not six as I said last week. The Black Tower, then, is the penultimate episode of the BBC mini-series; it sees Jonathan, a fugitive from justice after the events of Arabella, holed up in Venice, attempting to summon up the thistledown gentleman and finally resurrect Arabella.

It’s an episode primarily about madness: Jonathan concludes that his best chance of actually seeing the thistledown gentleman is by going insane, and proceeds to do so by executing a bargain with an old lady whose heart’s desire is to become a cat, who dismays her relatives by her indecorous behaviour. This is, I think, crucial to the episode’s conception of madness: not a pathological illness but a refusal to conform to the dominant social paradigm. It’s a concept which also, of course, empowers the marginalised, the ill, the oppressed, the forgotten – Jonathan’s quote above, about restoring magic to the marginalised, is in sharp contrast to Mr Norrell’s continued efforts to censor magic, to silence the oppressed. And if magic is the place where oppression is revealed, where the dominant social paradigm becomes visible, then Norrell’s repeated assertion that “magic can’t cure madness” becomes ironically, actually true: magic can’t cure madness, because madness is magic’s antithesis as well as society’s. It’s not magic that’s radical: in this world, magic is part of the structure of history. Madness is radical everywhere, because it’s precisely a refusal of structure. This is, I think, the cleverness both of Clarke’s novel and of the TV adaptation: we’re asked to believe in the unfamiliar so as to cast new light on the familiar; we require the unreal to read the real.

There’s a rather interesting subplot to this episode which sees Vinculus, the roving magician consistently cast as mad by his more respectable social peers, travelling back to London with Stephen, who’s chosen to free him in return for his, Stephen’s, own freedom. Again, this is a narrative which sees Vinculus resisting oppression using madness, or the appearance of madness – and I feel like by this point in the narrative the appearance and the reality of madness are functionally the same thing. He’s seen as mad because he lives not as the vagrant Regency society says he is but as the Raven King’s prophet, triumphant and gleeful; Stephen’s promised freedom comes not in a technical sense – a release from the thistledown gentleman’s enchantment – but from a realisation that social truth is not the only truth, that things can be more than they appear; the freedom Vinculus offers is an opportunity to look below the surface, beneath race and gender and social rules; to think with new paradigms and see with new eyes. Madness is a choice here: a choice to resist social roles, to rage against one’s situation as Lady Pole does, a choice not to accept.

And people say fantasy is irrelevant.

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