Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was originally a book by Susanna Clarke. I read it and I was not that impressed. It was pretty dry and boring. In fact, the first time I tried reading it, I gave up after 100 or so pages but after some people in the ASoIaF forum recommended it as a “comedy of manners” I picked it up again with that in mind. Frankly, as a fantasy book it leaves much to be desired as it almost completely lacks any action and has only a very tepid sort of romance. However, as a comedy of manners, it’s good.
With that as my mindset when watching the TV show, I was only mildly disappointed. The show was good but not really that interesting or exciting. I did enjoy watching it for the fashion, scenery, and lovely actors. The story is still lacking in action, drama, and romance but I like to think of it as a fairly amusing TV show that is:
- An Oscar Wilde type comedy of manners ala Lady Windermere’s Fan/The Importance of Being Earnest
- set in a Jane Austen world
- but with magic
If that sounds interesting then you might like this TV show.
To give an example, here’s a great quote from the book: when asked whether a magician could kill with magic, Jonathan Strange said “I suppose a magician might, but a gentleman never could.”
The entire TV show is mostly centered around the subject of what a gentleman’s magic should be and the tension between “modern magic” (read: safe, predictable, and made by gentlemen) and “black magic” (read: not respectable magic, the old magic, mysterious, and beloved of street magicians).
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (TV Show) Rating
3 stars (out of 5) – A good watch, worth the time I spent on it.
This section of the review is separate because it has spoilers.
Warning: Spoilers! Do not read unless you have watched the show or read the book.
1.) In the TV show Strange actually does directly kill a man with magic. It contradicts the quote I mentioned above. This did not happen in the books.
2.) Slavery did not exist in England at the time (from what I know, it was abolished in May 1772) but it did in other parts of the British Empire. Stephen Black is not literally a slave though he is called one in both the books and TV show since he was born a slave to a slave mother.
3.) It’s always funny to me when a review focuses on historical inaccuracies because, let’s face it, the general viewing public doesn’t care about it at all. However, people who do know a lot about the particular time period find these little details fascinating. Now, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a fantasy therefore any and all details that don’t fit can easily be excused by saying that’s it’s not set in our world but rather a fantasy one. Nonetheless, I was very disturbed when Strange bought a ready to wear dress. This is obviously absurd as such a dress would have been custom made. RTW for women did not appear until the 1900s. Even if it was available during Strange’s time, it’s just not something that a wealthy women like Arabella would have worn. Another thing, hats and headcoverings (caps, bonnets, etc) were always worn outside. It kills me to see the lack of hats! Obviously, these are very minor details so it’s not a big deal.
4.) I prefer the book version where Stephen reluctantly kills the gentleman with the thistle-down hair to save Mrs. Pole. The TV version where he does it to gain a throne seems really mean-spirited and greedy. I would also have liked it if they showed Stephen becoming the king of Lost Hope.
5.) The gentleman with thistle-down hair in the books was quite a “nice” person while the TV version was scary and menacing. I don’t think that’s quite right. I think the fairy gentleman would be very charming, sort of like a grown-up Puck.
6.) The actress who played Emma Pole was perfect. She has just the right look to be considered a beauty in Austen books and in real life today. Her character arc ending, where she just completely rejects her useless husband, was great!
I really did enjoy it overall but for a review I have to be more objective and point out the flaws. It’s totally worth watching if you like historical fantasies.