Most viewers, I imagine, would have found the scene where the young girl rises from the dead – featured in Sunday night’s first instalment of the adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – a suitably alarming and magical moment, as the young consumptive bride-to-be suddenly inhales loudly, sits up and immediately grabs her fiance for a quick waltz (an ominous sign of things to come.) But this viewer was struck by an altogether simpler and far less impressive scene, in which we discover that the feckless, aristocratic Mr Strange is in fact a natural born magician.
On his way to inform his girlfriend (the very Jane Austen-like Arabella Woodhope; think Miss Woodhouse in Emma) of the happy news that his grumpy old git of a father has at last snuffed it, Jonathan Strange is waylaid by the seemingly homeless, and constantly drunk Vinculus, who sells him a couple of spells and then jigs about in a nearby field like a mad version of Julie Andrews, spinning around in those Alpine hills. Take it from me, you can always tell that bad things are coming when cast members keep breaking into weird and inappropriate dance moves.
Arriving at his girlfriend’s house Jonathan performs one of these spells, involving a small mirror and some dead foliage. Holding the mirror up he realises that the glass is no longer reflecting his surroundings but is providing a ‘window’ into places that are miles away from his current position. I was immediately struck by the similarity between that mirror and the hand held device I’d just switched off so, instead of thinking Wow!, that’s magical, I found myself wondering how a bloke from the early 19th century had got his hands on an iPad, which brings me to the key question continually posed in this strange Jane Austen’ish/Dickensian world – ‘Why is there no more magic done in England?’
I’m begging to differ. There may have been no more magic in 1806 but fast forward a couple of hundred years and England is full of it. There we sit, all of us, staring into mobile and stationary screens, made from a glass cooked up by a secret potion, in which you can see a distinct (or indistinct) image of yourself, reflecting back through these magical mirrors. They’re just mirrors after all, like the one Jonathan Strange was looking into. We make mystical passes (ok, we swipe and prod) over our iPads/phones and, lo and behold, the world is at our fingertips. Unless you’re a software programmer or computer genius, you may just as well be staring into that bowl of water Mr Norrell used to bring those York Minster statues to life. Because none of us have any idea of how these things actually work, do we? – if some digital boffin said to you, ‘well, it’s all done by magic see’, would you disagree?
Getting back to JS & Mr N though, I picked up a copy of the book years ago in the bestseller section at Tesco. The paperback version is as heavy as a couple of bricks and 1006 pages thick. It’s not a ‘light read’ and I remember wondering how such a weighty tome had made it to the popular bestsellers’ list. If Jane Austen had turned her hand to fantasy and science fiction then this book would have been the result, and how many people actually enjoy reading Miss Austen? (Yes, I know the films are wildly successful but that’s a whole different thing.)
The beginnings of the story of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell came to Susanna Clarke in ‘a kind of waking dream’ in 1992 and, after a long illness, she began to write the novel in what I’m calling ‘period-speak’. Archaic words like ‘shew’ and ‘stopt’ are bandied about frequently and there are very long, verging on the dull, conversations where you really have to pay attention. Nobody uses one word here when 27 will do. Not to mention long and complex footnotes, written as though the novel is depicting actual events and, taken together with these said events, you can understand why it took the author 10 years to write her book. Black and white pictures accompany the text in a very Dickensian fashion and the whole thing is a perfectly rendered, anachronistic work of art.
It’s a brilliant book but not one I thought could ever be successfully transferred to television, or to the big screen, but it looks like the Beeb has done it. The atmosphere, costumes, acting and settings are perfect – there’s no room here for the whitened, perfect teeth and uniform looks of the Americans; you need British teeth and British ‘ordinariness’ for 19th century based shenanigans.
Obviously a lot has to be left out when you’re dramatising a 1000+ page book, filled with descriptive passages and lots and lots of words. Peter Harness, the screen writer here, has successfully contracted pages and pages of scene- setting into the required essentials and the magical, fantastical world, conjured up by Clarke, has been given a realistic treatment, so that the images on screen feel almost contemporary. Yes, everyone is gadding about in funny hats, tail coats and laugh out loud wigs, but they could all appear in your average soap without attracting too much attention; particularly the always brilliant Paul Kaye as Vinculus, who looks and acts as though he’s just walked off one of the market stalls in EastEnders. More importantly, Harness hasn’t forgotten to lighten the mood by adding some humorous touches; the Strange’s poor, sick servant, for example, eventually acting as a human doorstop and this classic from Strange:
‘I drink very, very little, scarcely more than a bottle a day.’
There was some stand-out acting from Vincent Franklin as Drawlight who, embarrassing to admit, pronounces Mr Norrell as Mr Naw-relle! – exactly as I mistakenly did (in my own head) when reading the book; well, without the affected, dandyfied intonation.
As I’ve now forgotten most everything about this book, I’m looking forward to re-living the whole thing again via television over the coming 6 weeks, whilst also wishing for a slightly different ending (impossible) which I always felt was informed by Susanna Clarke’s family circumstances. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is dedicated to Clarke’s dead brother (1961-2000), who never read the book. Just as the Harry Potters are preoccupied with loss and untimely death, perhaps in part due to the death of J K Rowling’s mother, so the themes of loss and death run through this wonderfully intricate novel. This first televised episode would seem to indicate that the BBC has successfully captured the magic and strangeness of the original, but with the added reservation that this series will likely attract a ‘niche’ audience already familiar with the book, as opposed to the massive public appeal of Poldark, the Beeb ‘s recent Sunday night period drama.
(Reviews are the only things I read in the newspapers so I wanted to mention the piece written by the TV critic for the Daily Mail, in which he called Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell a ‘J K Rowling rip-off’ – you’ve got to wonder if he ever read the book. He couldn’t be more wrong or further from the truth.)