Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was published in 2004 and is considered one of the best alternate histories meets fantasy. Needless to say, it’s my favorite book next to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. Now it has been turned into a seven-part serial that will air on BBC America every Saturday night. (It aired on the BBC first on Sunday, May 17th, so they have just seen Episode Five. We get it, Brits! You get the fun things first! We’re sorry the American Revolution hurt your feelings!)
Every Monday, here on the Anomaly website, I will be posting recaps of the episodes that have aired on Saturday. Most recaps are online by the following day, if not the following hour after the episode finishes. I’m giving you 48 hours to catch up and read my ramblings. You’re welcome.
If you have not seen the first episode yet, you can watch it here on BBC America’s YouTube channel.
The episode opens in the early 1800s with John Segundus attempting to perform magic with no success whatsoever. (Maid 1: “Is he a magician?!” Maid 2: “Noooo, he smells too nice!”) He visits York Society of Magicians with the question of why magic is no longer done in England. You see, the funny thing about the “Society of Magic” is that they don’t really perform magic, and no one has seen it done in 300 years. This Society is mostly a bunch of rich men in powdered wigs that claim they only study magic. Although, what studies they do, who knows? Their “extensive library” is only comprised of five or six books.
Segundus continues to search for books of magic–big distinction between books about magic and books of magic–but finds that some mysterious man is swiping books that he has put on hold! (As someone who has had this happen to her, you have my sympathies, Gundy.) He and his newfound friend, Mr. Honeyfoot, discover the man’s name is “Norrell” and they go off to find him in Hurtfew Abbey. Before arriving, Segundus confides in Honeyfoot that a street magician told him a prophecy that indirectly involves him and how two magicians will restore magic to England.
Meet Mr. Norrell. He lives a somewhat reclusive life surrounded by a library of books that is like a live action version of the library in Beauty and the Beast. (Almost. The Beast’s library was huge, you guys.) The pair of York magicians–who I really want to call Yorkers or Yorkies, right now–ask the question again to Norrell, “Why is magic no longer done in England?”
However, Norrell says that is the wrong question, and says that he himself is a “tolerable practical magician.” Whaaaat? To quote the Daleks: “EX-PLAIN! EX-PLAIN!!” While we the audience are not given an explanation right away, Segundus and Honeyfoot are shown the door by Norrell’s servant Childermass and they need no other reason to run to tell the York Society of Magicians this. To which the powdered wigs laugh at them. Loudly.
Furthermore, they are so sure that Norrell isn’t a magician, that they want him to prove it. If he can’t, then he must publicly declare that he is a liar. Norrell takes the Society up on this, having them meet at York Cathedral and sending Childermass as his representative. Before they enter, Childermass presents a contract saying that if Norrell can perform magic, then the Society of Magicians must disband and no longer call themselves such. The majority of them sign for various reasons. The only one who doesn’t sign is Segundus, because “magic is [his] life.” Childermass seems cool with it. Aw! You do you, Gundy!
Guess what happens next? That’s right, Norrell performs magic. By doing what?
He brings %$#*ing cathedral statues to life and scares the @#%& out of them! And he does this from his own house! With that, the Society disbands and there’s only one man who calls himself a magician in England, and he is the real deal. So far, anyway. Remember what Segundus mentioned? A prophecy about two magicians? Gundy and Honeyfoot have concerns.
Jonathan Strange. He is a man prone to be a bit child-like, hapless and he’s a big British dork and I love him. (What?) He is absolutely in love with the practical Arabella Woodhope (whom I also love) and he seeks her approval in hopes that they will marry. However, she finds that he is a bit lost in his way and suggests that he find an occupation. The problem? Jonathan can’t seem to find anything that attracts his attention. Even if he could, his domineering father would never trust him with any sort of venture. Strange, Sr.’s cruelty is shown when he demands that the severely ill servant open all the windows and stand next to them as the cold air blows in. Not cool, man… oh crap, I wrote a pun. God help me…
After a night of drowning his woes into a lot of alcohol, he is woken to both a hangover and the death of Strange, Sr. after he had frozen to death with the window open. The death is no loss to Jonathan. But with his father’s passing, he has inherited his father’s estate. Meaning that he has an occupation.
Which is good news! (Jonathan [about seeing Arabella]: “What sort of mourning period is appropriate? A month? A week? Three days?”)
Meanwhile, Mr. Norrell and his servant Childermass take residence in London in hopes to make magic a respectable practice in England as opposed to the more stereotypical ideas of magicians. However, when he approaches Sir Walter Pole about assisting the British army in their endeavours, Pole turns him down and admits that had he known what Norrell was suggesting, he would not have met him. The torment does not end there for Mr. Norrell. He must attend a fancy soiree that is crowded with people who are too loud, too drunk, and too rich.
The party scene scene is shot beautifully, capturing what it’s like to be an introvert at parties. Norrell encounters two gentleman, Drawlight and Lascelles, the former claiming to know Norrell before even having met him. Eventually, Norrell has to escape the party and wanders into an alleyway…
Enter Vinculus! He appears to be a mad street magician, the sort of which Norrell wishes to rid the streets. (Remember Segundus’s encounter with a street magician? Go back a few paragraphs if you don’t.) He encounters Norrell outside of a party that the latter is trying to escape. And there he tells him a prophecy: That there will be two great magicians.
“Two magicians shall appear in England…
The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me;
The first shall be governed by thieves and murderers; the second shall conspire at his own destruction;
The first shall bury his heart in a dark wood beneath the snow, yet still feel its ache;
The second shall see his dearest possession in his enemy’s hand…
Both will fail
And the nameless slave shall be a king in a strange land.
I will return. His words, not mine. I will return…“
Based on how Norrell reacts to this and his demands that Childermass run him out of town, one suspects that Norrell might be the “fear” one. Childermass doesn’t have much success with the running Vinculus out of town part, by the way. The street magician is crazy, but he’s good at having the upper hand. Plus, the mark of the Raven King shows up on Childermass’s deck of handmade tarot cards.
Back to Jonathan! He and Jeremy Johns–the sick servant from earlier–ride to Cumberland, where Jonathan plans to propose to Arabella. Enter Vinculus! The mad magician is lying under a hedge where the men and women of the village are trying to shoo away the vagrant with sticks. He wakes and sees Jonathan, repeating his prophecy. Jonathan is not keen at first. (Jonathan: “Well, you don’t make it sound very appealing. Choose someone else.”) However, when Vinculus offers to sell two spells to him, Jonathan pays him. Oh. Did I mention that these were spells that Vinculus picked off of Childermass? Spells that were written by Norrell to chase Vinculus out of London? Oh, Vinculus…
Over dinner with Arabella and her brother, Henry, Jonathan talks about his plans to run his father’s estate. Arabella calls him out for saying he had never wanted to run the estate. So he tells her he’s going to be a magician, brings out one of the spells and attempts magic for the first time. The spell: “find out what my enemy is doing.” Jonathan prepares a mirror–the prime thing for the spell to work–and the reflection it casts is not of Jonathan and company, but of a nice London house. In fact, it is the nice London house of Mr. Gilbert Norrell.
Back in London, Walter Pole’s sickly fiancee, Emma Wintertowne, passes away before their wedding, and Mr. Norrell seeks to prove himself by resurrecting her. Doing so summons a mysterious gentleman with pale skin color and a soft coif, almost like the weird cousin of Malcolm McDowell and Jareth from Labyrinth. (Marc Warren’s portrayal totally works, even if it is not what I had imagine. That is the job of the actor, to find new interpretations of a character.) He is referred to in the book as well as the ending credits as the Gentleman with Thistledown Hair. He asks Norrell what he is willing to trade for the lady’s life. Norrell is shaken, so the Gentleman makes it a bit easier on him. He asks for half the lady’s lifespan. Norrell agrees, asks if they need to sign something. The Gentleman says there is no need, and that he will solidify the deal in his own way.
A scream is heard. Walter Pole, the butler Stephen Black, and Emma’s mother race in as Norrell races out. Emma awakens, alive and lively. But there is something off. Whatever it is, it probably has to do with the fact that the little finger on her left hand is missing.
What has Norrell done? Why is he Strange’s enemy, even though they haven’t met? How will this affect the revived Emma, the future Lady Pole? Does anyone have a problem with me calling Segundus “Gundy?” Find out more in next week’s recap for Episode Two: “How is Lady Pole?” Except the Gundy part, that’s going to keep happening whether you want it to or not.
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Stream our poadcast review of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
RED ALERT! Please be aware that this episode contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. But, never fear, an alert will sound before the spoilers start.