Jonathan Strange Review: How is Lady Pole?

One is never lonely when one has a book.”

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

The answer is, in fact, “not very well at all”.

It’s tempting to read the second episode of the BBC’s adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell as in part a kind of metatextual discussion about Regency (yes, it is Regency, because Sir Walter Pole said the King was mad, so there) attitudes toward marginalised groups. After I watched the first episode, I started thinking about the scene where Norrell and the fairy gentleman with the thistledown hair bargain Lady Pole’s life away. It’s a scene, I think, specifically designed to alienate the viewer: the menacing, alien being and the bumbling, cowardly Norrell concluding a Faustian bargain in a coldly lit bedchamber over a woman with literally no agency (being dead). We’re not supposed, at this point, to identify with either of these characters: the bargain is a kind of metaphor for the sale and barter of countless women of the time. The scene constitutes, in its own way, the ironic, distancing treatment of Regency values that was apparent in the original novel’s disjunct between its Augustan prose style and its awareness that it’s not actually a Regency novel.

So what does this episode do with that distance? If the title of the episode is How is Lady Pole, what’s it doing to answer that question?

Well, as a result of Norrell’s bargain – which, we remember, traded away half of Lady Pole’s life to the thistledown gentleman – it transpires that Lady Pole is spending her nights dancing at the fairy court due to a highly creative reading of the wording of the bargain (because when was the last time you slept twelve hours straight?). But it works on fairyland logic, so, fine. Lady Pole is less than pleased by this: she becomes distressed at the sound of bells, which announce the thistledown gentleman’s arrival, she tries to avoid going to sleep, she tries to tell people – but all that comes from her mouth is nonsense. It’s Mr Norrell who pronounces the inevitable verdict: “Magic can’t cure madness.” Which is significant, because a) Mr Norrell has personal reasons for not wanting Lady Pole taken seriously, and b) the madwoman in the attic is a classic metaphor for oppressed and silenced women – think Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre, or the protagonist of “The Yellow Wallpaper”. How is Lady Pole, then? Silenced, oppressed and frightened – but not ill. The episode uses the visual trope of the pale consumptive woman only to undermine it, just as the novel uses Regency prose only to undermine the values that created it.

I say this not to draw out the rather obvious moral that women in Regency times were oppressed but just to illustrate how clever I think the BBC is being in adapting the novel: it’s got that you can’t do the same things in TV that you can in print, while remaining faithful to the source material. With TV, we can’t ever believe ourselves inside a historical narrative as we can with a historical novel, because TV is a modern medium; so instead of Augustan prose we get a series of visual shorthands, cliches we’re all familiar with from visual forms of historical storytelling and which for many of us form the basis for our knowledge of historical periods, and asks how they’re culturally conditioned, how much objective truth there is in them.

Apart from anything else, the programme remains a joy to watch. The second episode is again well-paced, suspenseful and spooky, and the animation remains fantastic: there’s a scene where horses made of sand rescue a grounded ship which is simply breathtaking. I don’t know how much money is being thrown at this but I’m going to guess it’s somewhere in the region of “a lot”. Bertie Carvel as Jonathan Strange is very watchable, enthusiastic and energized; Jonathan’s wife Arabella is funny and sharp and a great corrective to the consumptive Lady Pole (“Arabella is not a three-year-old”); the thistledown gentleman remains menacing and otherworldly. Adapting a novel successfully is a very hard trick to get right, but I think Jonathan Strange is doing it very well.

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