Jonathan Strange Review: The Education of a Magician

I regularly demand the impossible of my engineers, my generals, my officers. I see no reason to make an exception in your case.”

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

The third episode in the BBC’s six-part fantasy drama, The Education of a Magician sees Jonathan Strange working magic in the service of Lord Wellington on the Continent, creating roads for his army, calling up mists, raising the dead, and otherwise partaking in magical larks.

But for me the best part of the series remains the magical horrors at home, in England, where the gentleman with the thistledown hair continues to menace the Pole residence, and Mr Norrell becomes more and more unpleasant and cowardly as he attempts to cover up his mistake by censoring the Stranges’ letters to each other and restricting access to Lady Pole. Perhaps, after all, this is the point: while Strange is off fighting the French and the Italians and doing all the stuff that magicians do, the real magic, the real disturbance in the nature of things (by which I think I mean the cultural fabric of Napoleonic Europe) is sitting at home with Mr Norrell, whose cowardice and ignorance of the society in which he lives (we remember that of the two magicians Norrell is the one who hates company, who refuses to kowtow to those in power, who does not behave like a gentleman) has opened up a profoundly troubling mirror-space at the heart of domesticity. It’s that mirror-space, the land of Faerie where dwells the thistledown gentleman and his ilk, that reflects and enhances the brutalities of Regency England, stripped of their trappings of courtesy: the misogyny and the racism that generates England’s cultural power. Just as fairy magic and the magic of the Raven King – the magic of the thistledown gentleman – lies behind all English magic (however respectable Mr Norrell would have it), the systems of prejudice that imprison Lady Pole and which rob Stephen of his history and name lie behind the cultivated respectability of Regency society. Which is, I think, the reason storytellers return to the Napoleonic and Regency era so often, especially in genres like fantasy and romance, and why we like Jane Austen so much: there’s a deep imaginative conflict between the laws of decency and respectability (“remember we are Christian”, as Henry Tilney tells a mortified Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey) and the casual brutalities that lie behind those laws, which finds itself manifested in the contemporary literature as the Gothic.

I’m still enjoying Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by the way. However we choose to read it (if we choose to read it at all, and don’t just watch it like sane people do), the scenes with the thistledown gentleman are fantastic and strange and bizarre; the plight of Lady Pole is positively rage-inducing (I want to punch Mr Norrell’s pimply face more and more); Jonathan’s experiences on the front line are sensitively handled. Onwards into the mirror-lands!

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