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:
- most of the lead characters are white men
- BUT it’s set during a historical period where white men held the overwhelming majority of power and privilege
- AND the book criticizes this constantly, in almost every aspect of the story.
- there is only one POC character, and he is a former slave
- BUT his character arc deals intelligently with issues of race and class in the context of his life and surroundings, AND he’s not portrayed as a stereotype. plus, [SPOILER] stephen black’s storyline ends with an explicit critique of people’s concept of “englishness,” because he turns into the successor of the Raven King — another “nameless slave” (which, btw, is not how Stephen is actually characterized within the narrative) who was kidnapped as a child and learned to speak english later on.
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.)