Giving Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell a Place to Call Home

28 Apr

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is an interesting conglomeration by Susanne Clarke. Containing many elements of magic, it is often referred to as an adaptation of the pop culture phenomenon that is the Harry Potter series, except catering more to the adult age demographic. More interesting is while maintaining such characteristics of fantasy, the novel also rather historic with a setting of early 19th century England, Wellington.  This collision of both fantasy and history bring about an interesting question. Where in our culture do novels like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell belong? Is it in popular culture, along with Harry potter? Or is it perhaps in high culture, along with a textbook of English history?

Though not so much in its beginning pages, the novel is riddled with magic, lending itself to quite a fantastical taste.  The magic is an exciting blend of human and faerie with such a complex and realistic taste to it, such that it almost maintains a level of academia about itself. Having a defining characteristic as such, on might want to place Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell on the same end of the cultural spectrum of works such as Avatar: The Last Airbender and the previously mentioned Harry Potter series. I would like to maintain, however; that while it maintains its aspects of fantasy and fiction, the book also has its fair share of high culture elements to consider.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is also referred to by many as a historical novel. It is blatantly apparent from the incredibly believable setting that Clarke spent much time meticulously researching early 19th century England to develop such a detailed and accurate setting. Featuring among many things historical figures and carriages, the novel provides readers with a very much Victorian Era feel. In addition, the novel itself is over one thousand pages long—and discursive, too; both of which reflect how many writings of its ‘time’ were produced. It reminds me of works of Mark Twain, intentionally drawn out as he and other writers of his time were paid by the word.

The tone of the characters and the novel as a whole was also developed in such a way to provide them all with some outstanding sense of ego. It is as though everyone throughout the novel caries with them a form of elitism you would expect from English royalty of the time; supporting the aforementioned Victorian taste. These historical characteristics do their share to push the novel towards the more high culture end of our previously referenced cultural spectrum. So where does it lie?

Somewhere in between, that’s where. Clarke does a splendid job in presenting a conflicting magical yet historical England. She has effectively created a bridge between popular (also referred to as low) and high culture. The more magical and fantastical elements of the novel lend itself to popular culture, while the historical context and accuracy qualify it as an artifact of high culture. The result is not black and white, but instead a nice shade of gray lying somewhere in between.

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