More than a novel, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is the beginning of a mythology. In its 1,000 pages, Clarke presents us a pre-Victorian England that enjoys, or endures, the existence of magic, faeries and an ancient magician-king who has abandoned his throne three hundred years ago but might come back any minute. She creates two great leading characters, the scientific-minded Mr. Norrell and the impetuous Jonathan Strange. And she leaves a good number of loose ends in her story, an implicit vow to return and expand on what’s already quite expanded.
The Ladies of Grace Adieu is the second book of Clarke’s saga, a moment for the writer to catch her breath before another big effort: eight short stories that give readers more information about the state of magic before Norrell and Strange and introduce yet more characters who will surely come back in future works, such as the half-faerie Alessandro Simonelli, who narrates “Mr Simonelli or The Faerie Widower”, and adventure buddies David Montefiore, a Jewish physician, and Tom Brightwind, a Faerie prince — as well as Brightwind’s bastard son, Lucius Winstanley, who conveniently disappears on a horse at the end of “Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby”. Other stories, such as “On Lickerish Hill”, “The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse” and “Antickes and Frets”, are more closed in themselves, still a part of Clarke’s magical world but lacking the scent of prologue — which, of course, is not a problem at all. On one occasion, though, the scent is of hurriedness , almost impatience. In the story that gives the collection its title, the three enchanted ladies of Grace Adieu are revealed and discarded too quickly, serving only as an additional explanation for Jonathan Strange’s change of behaviour at a crucial point of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. It feels as if Clarke plucked an unnecessary chapter from her novel and turned it into a story that can barely stand on its own.
There are as much mentions to Jane Austen as there are to Tolkien in appreciations of Clarke’s work.
Talking about stories standing on their own: for the reader who doesn’t feel inclined to digest Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, is there a sense in picking up The Ladies of Grace Adieu? I’m glad to answer, yes. Some endings might be disappointingly vague for those who don’t wish to keep up with the mythology, but on the whole every story in this collection makes for at least an enjoyable reading, mainly because of Clarke’s sterling prose. There are as much mentions to Jane Austen as there are to Tolkien in appreciations of Clarke’s work, and they are quite understandable. “When Mrs. Field died, her grieving widower looked around him and discovered that the world seemed quite as full of pretty, young ladies as it had been in its youth”: Couldn’t that sentence, the one that opens the book, fit perfectly in the work of she who wrote “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”? The meaning is almost the opposite, but the tone — an irony that’s visible without being condescending — is the same.
(Here, by the way, is a relatively serious theory: what if the invention of a magical world were simply an excuse for Clarke to write in an uncontemporary fashion? I didn’t get that feeling from Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but at midpoint during The Ladies of Grace Adieu I thought the writer might be simply using the fantastic as an excuse for her quaintness. Mixing Austen and magic was a brilliant idea, but I think the Austen component came first, and Clarke must have been thrilled to find a postmodern excuse — “yes, it’s an old style, but check out this hot new context!” — for writing the way she likes and can.)
The Ladies of Grace Adieu is a treat
Clarke does such a good job at Austenian prose that even the stories lacking in plot, such as “The Ladies of Grace Adieu” or “Mrs Mabb”, have a quality that just made me want to keep reading. On the other hand, moving away from Austen may lead Clarke to trouble: in “On Lickerish Hill”, the old-fashioned and uncultured language of the narrator feels like a counterfeit and is not up to the efforts of, say, David Mitchell on the field of characterization through speech. The sombre tone of “Antickes and Frets”, about Mary, Queen of Scots’ last attempt to murder Elizabeth and become Queen of England, is a better variation. And, at any rate, it is good to see Clarke’s willingness to take risks as a writer.
Without being a particularly exciting book, The Ladies of Grace Adieu is a treat both for those who simply enjoy a bunch of good short stories and those who want to follow the greater story begun in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. For this second category of reader, though, these short stories are but an appetizer. And we are eagerly awaiting for the next main course.