A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.
A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.
i don’t think JS&MN is a racist or sexist book in itself, although there’s no simple answer to the question of whether it “should” include more women or POC characters.
obviously both Norrell and Strange are immensely privileged, but that privilege doesn’t go unexamined. norrell’s intellectual snobbery and classism are constantly mocked within the narrative, and Strange lives the kind of life that is only possible if you’re born into wealth and social freedom. meanwhile people like stephen black and lady pole are repeatedly screwed over by their place in society, regardless of their own skill, intelligence or ambition.
the book acknowledges the stratified nature of class in 19th century england. in fact, that’s one of the main themes throughout, with Strange and Norrell only reaching their positions of power because they’re rich, white, upper-class men. and then, of course, they abuse those privileges (or at least, misuse them). the book is all about divides: north/south, rich/poor, race, gender, etc. i can’t really get behind the criticism that it’s being racist or sexist purely by focusing on JS & MN’s stories, although I WOULD use that exact same criticism for a book or movie that blithely heroizes a bunch of white male characters for no reason. (needless to say, neither Norrell nor Strange are “heroes,” with Norrell being actively unlikable throughout.)
for me, the main issue would be the fact that while it’s a very smart and well-informed novel, it does join the already-enormous canon of historical and fantasy literature that focuses on white men. but once again… this doesn’t go unexamined. you could actually argue that it’s a takedown of this trend, since strange and norrell both unfairly benefit from being part of the expected ruling class of “english magic.”
re: stephen and lady pole, it doesn’t really make sense to use a criticism like “oh, a male character has to save a woman,” as if we were talking about the latest transformers movie or whatever. stephen and lady pole’s circumstances are an essential part of their story arcs, and it’s made clear that they’ve been held back by 19th century english society their entire lives. i’d compare it to how it’s super easy to find out about the political/historical/scientific impact of upper-class white englishman IRL, whereas learning about the equivalent of Stephen Black or Lady Pole is wayyy harder. And since JS&MN is written partly as a kind of history book, i think that subtext was intentional. WE get to hear about stephen black and lady pole, but the people who “History” will remember are Strange and Norrell themselves, because they have such a foothold in britain’s ruling classes and cultural zeitgeist.
the Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair literally silences Lady Pole and Stephen Black: a direct commentary on the way women & POC were silenced in real life. Strange & Norrell get to be at the centre of attention in british society, while the (equally important) storylines for lady pole and stephen are hidden away in the background — known only to us, the readers.
the entire story is structured to highlight the way strange and norrell can basically do whatever they want (which is eventually their downfall, and fucks shit up for a lot of other people), while everyone who isn’t a rich white man has to put in way more effort — often to no avail. for example, it’s implied that childermass could be more powerful/knowledgeable as a magician than norrell is, but his social status prevents that from happening. and norrell actively combats anyone “below” him from learning about magic, because he has this gross patriarchal belief that He Knows Best.
there’s also the way the gentleman with the thistledown hair treats stephen throughout their relationship. i think it’s implied that the reason why stephen is so good at dealing with the Gentleman is because he’s used to putting up with people in positions of power trying to control him, or treating him like he’s some kind of curiosity.
IMO, what we have here is a book where:
this all brings us back to the more general question of whether it’s racist/sexist to continue to write books about rich white men when there are so many stories about them already. Stephen Black is the only major character who isn’t white, and his backstory (former slave; now a butler) is probably what most people think of as an “expected” scenario for a black man in 19th century england. (although you could say the same of pretty much every other character, all of whom exist within the specific parameters of their social class.)
i don’t think JS&MN was a case of susanna clarke thoughtlessly ignoring the existence and life stories of women and POC in 19th century england. it was a case of her purposefully setting out to write a book about two immensely privileged people and how this kind of undeserved, unexamined power generally leads to disaster. if the book had been JUST about norrell and strange then it would have come across as a blinkered view, but because they’re both portrayed as being products of their social status, and because the book gives us a nuanced view of the way this differs from the lives of characters like stephen, childermass and lady pole, i didn’t have a problem with it.
(p.s. i read this book in 2012, so this answer probably isn’t as well-informed as it could’ve been. apologies if i got something glaringly wrong.)
I agree with all of this, and would also add that a substantial portion of what Clarke is doing in this novel is very carefully recreating and simultaneously breaking down the exact progression of literary discourse and production in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century England. Norrell and Strange’s disagreements over the proper use of magic could be applied almost word-for-word to the literary establishment of the time contra the Romantic poets, of whom Strange is an explicit representative. (He literally meets Byron.) The publishers she cites in the book are actual people who were publishing key authors at the time, many of whom were not selling many books at all, and many of whom were getting into pretty heated debates about the purpose of poetry/art, among other matters. Magic in the text functions largely as a surrogate for writing, and the connection between magic within the text and the literature of the period from which Clarke is drawing her sources can’t be overstated.
Strange really is a Byronic hero — which is precisely what makes him both compelling and winning, and also easy to mock, and ultimately dooms him. Even if you strip down what she’s doing to a purely aesthetic level — say, the nightmarish quality of the scenes in Italy later on — everything comes back to the literary context of the period. And for the Romantics, the key figure was the brilliant, heroic man out on his own against nature — but in Strange’s case that doesn’t work (as it generally tended not to; even in real life they all died early), and we see all of the other people around him who a) are affected negatively by his actions and b) who have to work to get shit done in his stead. What Clarke is essentially doing in this book is contextualizing the Romantic ideal in the realities of the period — but through fantasy, instead of simply just saying, “And in fact everyone was poor and dirty and miserable while somewhere Percy Shelley was saying wanky things about poetry.” Which, I mean, IS VALID, but like, we all know that; it’s not very interesting or revelatory. Her way is a lot more ingenious, and has a lot more to say about the literature upon which she is commenting (she’s critical of the trope while still writing an entire book in homage to it), and ultimately leads to the creation of a what is itself truly remarkable work of literature. (So, a point: we see how much of a mess Strange’s whole Romantic hero thing gets everyone into, but he still does get to be a Romantic hero, and there still is something kind of… romantic about it. I mean, she doesn’t leave him dead in a ditch, you know? And the book is better for it.)
It’s been a while since I’ve read the book too, but I really fundamentally reject the notion that these aren’t important or legitimate subjects to engage with or write about. Of course we can and should all pick whichever books we want to read based on our own personal preferences! This book is not going to appeal to everyone. And, similarly, the work of poets like Byron and Shelley and Keats has a stature above work that might have been produced by other writers of less privilege (though, perpetual caveat: Keats had no money!). We all know the problems with the canon, basically, but that doesn’t mean that a) that work isn’t enormously culturally important, or b) engaging with it in critical and creative ways isn’t a worthy and valid endeavor. The canon may have issues, and the idea of the canon in the first place may have issues, but there is a (variable) canon, and it has had an impact. There are definitely people who disagree with me on this point, but I don’t think there’s any point in rejecting it wholesale. (We can reject bits. Only really niche scholars, for instance, should ever have to think about Pope again.)
In any case, though, you absolutely don’t have to have this kind of academic background to appreciate the book — it’s enjoyable purely on the level of historical critique, as Gav explicated so well above, and also simply as a very, very good fantasy novel — but as someone who does have that background it’s a really important text to me for the ways in which it engages with that literary history, among other things.
This is why fiction is an art and life is not—how much more affecting is the lie than the truth.
I just realized that one of the questions from the meme yesterday asked about favorite characters by other people and I forgot to answer that part of the question, and I was thinking about it just now in the shower and thought it was interesting because, re. what I was saying about likeability, it’s kind of difficult to answer? I was thinking about my favorite books and how I wouldn’t necessarily think about the characters in them in this way — I love Never Let Me Go, for instance, and I love Kathy H., but I’m not sure I would say that she’s one of my favorite characters ever or anything; that’s not really the reason I like the book; same with something like Train Dreams which truly has nothing to do with that character at all. And then even something like Middlemarch is full of characters I love but none of them stand out too particularly — I love Dorothea but she also makes me roll my eyes a lot, which is obviously intentional. You could, of course, say that favorite ≠ likeable, and I don’t even mean to draw a direct parallel. But I don’t know — it’s a different metric.
Anyway in my ruminating I found myself thinking about Lily Briscoe, and Lyra Belaqua, and Jonathan Strange, and Jane Eyre, and Hamlet, and Polly Whittacker and Thomas Lynn, and Vautrin, and Patrick Melrose (who is decidedly NOT likeable), and, last but not least, Ralph Touchett, who was my answer to a question once when asked if I could be friends with one character from literature, who would I choose. Because as he proves in that novel, Ralph is a pretty excellent friend indeed. And pretty amusing at dinner, I’d imagine.
Also if anybody else wants to ask questions from that meme you should, I liked it a lot, and I can answer them when I get back home later.
“a girl is a half-formed thing is obviously better,” charles says, infuriated. he’s sweaty with anger, and his glasses (non-prescription) have slipped down to the tip of his nose. “it’s the best bloody book i’ve read all year. all decade, possibly.”
erik rubs at his chin.
"the work of all present company excluded," charles says. "of course."
Charlotte and I were just discussing this so I decided to put up this highly subject-to-change list of my favorite books, which I feel is pretty telling on a number of levels:
Authors, I said, would probably be: Woolf, Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, Henry James, Colm Tóibín, Kazuo Ishiguro, Zadie Smith, and Edward St Aubyn. Which I say to give you a sense of how totally hilariously skewed my literary influences have been toward the United Kingdom (and Ireland). Henry James is the most American person on that list, and he is very dubiously American.
Anyway, I’d recommend any of those books unreservedly. And if you want me to talk about any of them/talk about any of them to me I am happy to do so.
I read this post by tomato-greens when I woke up this morning and thought it was really interesting (I’m always interested in what people read in class in high school because my experience in this area was, as you will shortly see, COMPLETELY ABNORMAL), and then got on twitter and started seeing all the news about the reformed English education standards in the UK, which are just so mind-bogglingly terrible I can’t really even process it. (Can we just. Eject Michael Gove from the planet. Can we just send him to space. Could we do that with the collected power of our minds.)
Anyway this got me thinking and I tried to type up a list of the major things I read at my extremely good public high school — I grew up in a rich town in the suburbs that people moved to “because of the schools,” which should give you an idea — and I’m sure I’m missing some but it was pretty interesting.