Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Review: The Friends of English Magic

All prophecies are nonsense.”

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

So I finally got round to watching the first episode of the BBC’s adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a tale of the resurgence of magic in a Napoleonic-era England in which “magician” is a bad word and no real magic has been practised for three hundred years.

It should be noted at this point that I read the novel about two years ago, and so I can’t say I actually remember great swathes of it, or that I can claim to make any kind of meaningful statement about the faithfulness of the TV series to the book (other than the broad, “there was nothing I didn’t remember from the book”). In any case, my main experience of Clarke’s novel was one of atmosphere over plot: I loved its footnotes and its imagined histories and its bookishness more than I waited with bated breath for stuff to happen.

Obviously, this isn’t an atmosphere that a TV drama can achieve, especially not a fantasy TV drama on at primetime on a flagship channel. Though calling the episodes of the series chapters is a nice touch, this first episode is much faster-paced and much more fantastical than I remember the original. Where Clarke asked us to consider magic an academic discipline, a subject to be pored over and written about, a thing so ingrained in English history as to be almost mundane, the TV series explicitly draws us into an ethereally coloured otherworld of fantasy shorthand: the facetious Norrell’s Gothic library, the deep dark shadows of York cathedral (the whole cathedral sequence is a very effective and probably quite expensive piece of animation), the haunted and haunting bedchamber of the dead.

Aesthetically, then, it’s quite different from the novel, but that, I think, only makes the dissonance of Norrell’s actual character in this setting all the sharper. (Jonathan Strange, the other magician of the novel, doesn’t make much of an appearance here.) The episode plays on the characters’ expectations of what a magician should be as much as it plays on ours: Eddie Marsan’s hunched, awkwardly proud Norrell is emphatically the wrong figure for this kind of drama, yet he’s the one tasked (by himself, it has to be said) to bring magic back to public attention. Clearly uncomfortable in company (“I have no friends,” he says, tragically, at one point), Norrell’s almost pathetic desire to return to the retirement of his Yorkshire home grounds the fantasy aspects, as well as the high drama of London social and political life, in recognisable human weakness.

All of which is to say: I liked this a lot. The episode is well-paced and suspenseful, and the air of prophecy about it is properly menacing. There are some excellent performances, from Marsan, from Marc Warren as a brilliantly sinister faerie creature, from Samuel West as the apparently respectable but mercenary Sir Walter Pole. I feel like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is going to be one of those rare things: an adaptation that takes full account both of its source material and of the demands of the new medium.

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