Freya Marske’s debut novel A Marvellous Light (2021) joins a slew of recent novels that introduce magic into historical English milieux, using it as a device to comment on the hoarding of power by aristocratic elites; which is to say, white, straight, upper-class men. Susanna Clarke’s magisterial Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (2004) sets this critique in the early 1800s, examining the effects that the warring ambitions of the last two English magicians have on the women, working-class folks and people of colour around them; Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown (2015)and The True Queen (2019) lean more heavily on the structures of Regency romance, bringing postcolonial and queer dimensions to her discussion of English society in this period.
Marske’s novel takes place later than Cho’s and Clarke’s, but the premise is very similar. It’s the first decade of the 20th century and civil servant Robin Blyth is accidentally assigned a post that makes him responsible for liaising with a secret network of English magicians of which he has, hitherto, been entirely unaware (as his punning surname suggests). The appointment throws him into the path of Edwin Courcey, the magical scion of an aristocratic English family, who is investigating the disappearance of Robin’s predecessor in the post and who plans to wipe Robin’s memory of magical society as soon as that predecessor is found. Things of course don’t quite go to plan, as the pair find themselves growing increasingly attracted to one another, and as Robin begins experiencing magical visions, in the course of their uncovering a sinister magical conspiracy that threatens all England.
Class, then, is the key vector for power in Marske’s world: as in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Sorcerer to the Crown, upper-class white men are the only people in whom the pursuit of magic is considered acceptable. Marske uses the conspiracy that Robin and Edwin spend the novel chasing down as a device to critique this state of affairs, and British class structure in general: something is rotten in the state of England. That rottenness, as one of Robin’s most disturbing visions shows, threatens to bring about an apocalypse that will end the genteel vision of Englishness that Edwin’s landed relatives inhabit once and for all: on one of the novel’s most powerful scenes, Marske gestures forwards towards the spectre of the First World War.
But this critique is limited by the fact that both of Marske’s viewpoint characters are in fact upper-class white men. (Robin’s parents managed to fritter away the family wealth – hence the need for him to take employment with the government – but he is still officially Sir Robert.) Their queerness is, of course, a point of marginalisation for them both, but in fact Edwin’s connections ensure that neither of them face any real persecution or consequences for it. There are more interesting characters around the edge of the narrative: the Indian Miss Morrissey and her sister Mrs Kaur; the elderly and unexpectedly powerful Flora Sutton; but none of them get much play, and the novel is certainly not principally interested in how the concentration of magical power in men’s hands affects them structurally.
As a result, the novel suffers in comparison with its more incisive forebears. In many ways that’s a shame: taken by itself, it’s a delightful read, with a queer romance whose intensity (and explicitness) rivals that of a Sarah Waters novel, and a plot that’s satisfyingly resonant without being overwrought or overworked. This is to be the first installment in a planned trilogy; perhaps its sequels will go further in examining the corrosive power structures underlying our conceptions of Edwardian Englishness. But as it is, A Marvellous Light feels too slight.