This review contains spoilers.
1.4 All The Mirrors Of The World
That ampersand in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’s title gives the wrong impression altogether. It advertises union where there is only discord. At least there is now, after the battle lines were drawn in this week’s conflict-driven episode.
The “period of collaboration” is over, Strange told Norrell in that wonderfully acted fireside scene. It was diplomatically put. Norrell clearly wanted no such thing as a collaborator in magic, or even a student, but instead an unquestioning acolyte, someone to leave his reign untroubled, sign off Lascelles’ propagandist book, and not to ask inconvenient questions about faeries.
Strange (who returned as puffed up with his Peninsula experience as a gap year student brimming with their life-changing experiences in the noodle huts of Hanoi. Who can blame him though? As we’ve seen, raising the dead changes a man) not only didn’t sign off on the book, but registered his disapprobation in the only way a Regency gentleman knew how – by publishing a damning notice in The Edinburgh Review.
Part of what’s so pleasing about this adaptation (and no doubt its source material) is the complexity of its characters. Even when it might seem that the titular leads are simply avatars for two opposing stances—one rational, one fanciful—there’s much more going on.
On the surface, it appears that Norrell and his branch of magic represent rationalism and scientific reason, while Strange and his interest in the medieval and the fay would mark him down as an anti-Enlightenment Romantic. Modernity, respectability and reputation are Norrell’s obsessions. Faerie realms, black magic and a folkloric king appear to be Strange’s.
It’s not quite so straightforward. Strange’s position, one that responds to evidence (the Raven King’s magic clearly works; there is another realm behind England’s mirrors) is the more properly scientific one. Strange adapts his beliefs according to observable experience, the mark of a scientist. Norrell, on the other hand, takes the inflexible position of steadfast and blinkered faith. He has decided upon a position and refuses to bend from it no matter what the evidence says.
Except it’s more complex even than that. We know that Norrell is all-too aware of the power of faerie magic. He’s seen it first-hand, witnessed its abhorrent consequences, and has been trying to deny its existence ever since. He embodies that classic Dickensian theme of the public versus the private. In public, Norrell presents as every inch the proud, modern, rational magician. In private, he is panicking and afraid.
The joy of this cast, and particularly Eddie Marsan, is that all of those layers are brought to bear in the performance. When Norrell behaves with abominable self-interest, declaiming about the severity of his injury while Childermass is bleeding all over the kitchen table, and chastising the man who took a bullet for him for having been uselessly asleep for days, it’s not just his lack of compassion we see, but his desperation. When Norrell is cruel (“The Cinque Dragownes is our best chance of having him hanged”) or when attempts to project kindness (“You shall have the keys to the library”), we see don’t only see that, but underneath it, his pride, frustration, fear, desperation and isolation. Norrell’s talents are clearly outstripped by Strange’s, and he’s running scared, hence his decisive final stance this week, egged on by the truly despicable Lascelles. Conveying so much so convincingly with such economy is an actor’s gift. Mark Rylance showed it in Wolf Hall, and Eddie Marsan shows it here.
Thanks in large part to Marsan’s performance, Norrell is captivating even though he’s has done nothing admirable or likeable in our presence since the series began. In fact, since the rain ships of Brest, he’s done nothing magical in our presence either. Crucially though, that doesn’t stop us from empathising with his predicament and wishing it weren’t so.
That’s the case for all of Strange & Norrell’s main players (yes, even the ridiculous Drawlight). They’re swept up by circumstance, and victims of the ‘careful what you wish for’ truism. Arabella wished for Jonathan not to be a dilettante, and is now losing her husband to his vocation. Childermass wished for his master to take his rightful place in society and was rewarded by ingratitude and a gunshot wound. Norrell wished for English magic to be restored, and so it has been, just not by him. His wish for another magician to converse with has delivered him a powerful enemy.
The fault in the latter is Norrell’s own of course, but at this point in the story, it feels as if the characters’ fates are being driven by another engine than their own. Like that sword appearing in Stephen’s hand and compelling him towards the aged King’s neck, Strange and Norrell are no longer in control, whether it’s Napoleon or the dastardly Lascelles deciding their next move for them.
God, this is good stuff. Not only does Strange & Norrell supply us with all that rich character drama, we also got a decent bit of King Lear from mad George, more joy from Segundus and Honeyfoot, those wonderfully atmospheric moments on the King’s Roads, a great gag about Shoreditch, all topped off with a deleted scene from Greek myth in which a thousand-year-old log is transformed into a croaking frog woman (a sticky Arabella, complete with nictitating membrane).
It’s a mad feast of a drama. When it finishes in just a few short weeks, what can possibly fill the gap it leaves behind?
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