Jonathan Strange Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

I shall advise all the good-looking women of my acquaintance not to die.”

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell


I’m a little overdue with this post, since the last episode of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was shown on Sunday, but with distance comes a little bit of perspective. Had I written this review on Sunday, or even Monday, I suspect it would have been pretty much exclusively in capslock.

Because, my, the feels.

The last episode rounds everything up, as might be expected: Jonathan Strange returns to England with his black tower of depression to try and rescue Arabella and scare seven hells out of Mr Norrell. Prophecies come true, kings are outed, the oppressed are set free. It absolutely enthralled me from start to finish. And that ending? It had me practically shouting at the telly: THAT’S NOT THE RIGHT ENDING. NO, THAT’S NOT WHERE IT ENDS. NO THAT IS WRONG. OH, HOLY HELL, THAT’S THE ENDING, ISN’T IT.

(I didn’t manage to avoid the capslock after all.)

But, actually, I guess it’s the only ending that makes any sense. By interacting with, by attacking the mirror-land of Lost-hope, by working against the hidden structures of oppression that mirror-land encodes, they become de facto cut off from society, isolated in a black tower of their own making. And by defeating that mirror-land, by making the nameless slave a king in a strange country, they become lost to society, because it’s no longer theirs. They have to leave England, as all the oppressed groups in the series have to leave it: Stephen becomes the new king of Lost-hope, subverting its repressive power structures; Lady Pole leaves her husband (freeing herself from the patriarchal bond of marriage into which she was sold); Flora Greysteel escapes the opprobrium of being a fallen woman and finds female friendship in Venice; Arabella too escapes patriarchal power as her marriage is effectively dissolved. All three women find themselves in Venice, a place of holiday and thus of carnival, where social structures become anarchic and disordered. The repressions of Regency England are effectively split wide open, broken by the actions of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and the country left in a state of disarray as more and more magicians spring up throughout the land.

It’s not a coincidence that the series (and the book) is set at the beginning of the 19th century, on the eve of both the Reform Act and the abolitionist movement, which between them opened up an often vehement conversation about equality and democracy which ultimately led to the end of slavery, to anti-discrimination laws, to women getting the vote, to last week’s Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage. Susanna Clarke’s tale of magic and madness is, I think, fundamentally about that beginning: it casts the political ferment and potential of those times as a fairytale, transmuting social change into something rich and strange and exciting (which is, after all, what fantasy is for). It’s a real shame that the series attracted only paltry ratings, with some critics even calling it childish; this is exactly the kind of clever, thoughtful drama we should have on our screens.

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