This review contains spoilers.
1.3 The Education Of A Magician
This is the one. This is the episode that added Regency England’s more sombre notes to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’s lively march of enchantment and manners. Previously muffled chords of war, slavery and madness rang out in a key-change that turned the composition’s tone from sparkling to solemn.
As well it might. Nineteenth century power politics are a solemn business for those without any, as Lady Pole and Stephen Black found out this week. Their bondage may be down to a magical contract, but a squirming snake nest of real-life gender, race and class systems sits underneath it.
As well as the literal ties now binding Lady Pole, her powerlessness and Stephen’s is expressed through their inability to speak about Lost Hope—the Gentleman’s contract compels both to reel off fabulist nonsense whenever they try to explain their servitude. Voicelessness has long been a useful image for subjection, and it’s one Strange & Norrell uses to real effect here. The ‘rose’ at Lady Pole’s mouth is fairy tale symbolism for her real-world disenfranchisement. Its status as a traditional love token makes it an apt symbol through which to mute a Regency gentlewoman, as apt as her subversion of embroidery—an established pastime of accomplished, elegant ladies—as a tool of attempted rebellion and self-expression. Lady Pole’s story is now part fairy tale, part The Yellow Wallpaper. She’s become a madwoman in the attic, dangerous to herself and others.
Speaking of which, will Childermass survive that gunshot, or did Jeremy’s death in that Portuguese forest foreshadow another servant dying to save his master?
Stephen’s story also leapt disconcertingly out of fairyland this week with the brutal scene of his birth and his mother’s death on board a slave ship. The Gentleman, for all his misunderstanding of the Christian world (“Lady Pole has no horrors”), reminds Stephen of what has been taken from him by his masters, not least of which is his original name.
Adapted from a modern novel disguised as a nineteenth century tale, Strange & Norrell has the peculiar ability of historical hindsight in its storytelling. Unlike the sealed world of say, an Austen, it’s able to zoom out and reveal the abhorrent power structures supporting Regency society. It shouldn’t shock a modern audience to be transported from Harley Street to the belly of that ship, but because the drama’s imitation of a genuine nineteenth century novel has been so convincing up until this point, shock us is exactly what it does. The magic has been so wonderfully distracting in Strange & Norrell, its foray into postcolonial realism took us unawares.
Voices and names weren’t only suppressed but also stolen in The Education Of A Magician. Mr Norrell callously intercepted Jonathan & Arabella’s letters, scanning them for word of his magical abuses and dismissing any talk of ‘love’. What would a man like him know of love, I suppose?
Childermass (who obviously has a more complex relationship with magic than we were previously aware of) wasn’t easy about the letter-stealing business, and neither are we. Norrell’s arse-covering response to his hubristic mistake with Lady Pole, combined with this week’s attempts to further suppress and threaten her, a girl of nineteen, showed le magicien anglais in anything but an admirable light. As Lady Pole sees it, he murdered her, explaining her attempt to repay the favour in the episode’s cliff-hanger.
Outside Norrell, the self-regarding dandies and brusque military tacticians, the series doesn’t lack for admirable characters. Arabella Strange continues to show good sense and backbone, this week standing up to Drawlight and The Gentleman, telling the latter exactly what Norrell would not when she instructed him not to “make a bargain of [her] friend”. Similarly, her husband’s declaration that though “a magician might” kill a man by magic “a gentleman never could” was also dashing stuff, as was his road-conjuring pose on that mountainside, every bit the Romantic Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.
Being a magician at war proved tougher than the dilettante Strange had bargained for. Compare the ruffled, callow gap year student who arrived in Lisbon to the quieter man reunited with his dear wife back in London. As The Gentleman did with Arabella, Strange attempted to find out what was the British army’s chief desire. To begin with, magic was a solution without a problem to Wellington (Ronan Vibert) until he caught on to exactly how ‘Merlin’ could be exploited.
Strange’s Portuguese travails were one of the few areas you could accuse this series of disappointing so far. Not because of what we saw—the road and resurrection scenes were gripping stuff—but because of what we didn’t. “You’ve moved churches, rivers and so forth” countered Wellington when Strange raised doubts as to whether a tree cares for soldiers. He did? And we didn’t get to watch? The ellipsis is understandable. Too much magic might have a deleterious effect not only on the series budget, but also on the impact of what we do see.
Moving mountains (well, almost), building roads and returning the dead from hell turned out to be Strange’s army skillset, achievements that earned him the respect of the rank and file but that took a considerable toll. When he chanted “borrowed life” over those Neapolitan corpses, whose life was being borrowed? His own? That’s under enough threat already from the sounds of The Gentleman’s plans.
In a way, this episode was about the toll taken. Depending on where Stephen’s story goes, it looks as though someone may be forced to settle the account of a centuries-long injustice. Had Lady Pole’s assassination attempt gone to plan, Norrell would now be paying for having made a bargain of her life, with his own. And Strange’s magic doesn’t come without a cost either, we’ve seen. What, ultimately, will he have to pay for it?
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