In the early 1990s, Susannah Clarke started making notes for a story. She was teaching English to Fiat automobile executives in Turin, and then to equally “sweet and overworked” Basque business types in Bilbao. But she was also thinking idly about the English winter, and the picture on a jigsaw puzzle she used to have, which showed two old gentlemen in 19th century wigs, reading books in a huge library.
If there was a novel forming in her head, Italy and Spain were too sunny to bring it out. So Clarke moved back to England, took a day job as a non-fiction book editor in Cambridge, and wrote her own thing in the grey mornings, and on weekends. In the summer she drew the curtains and put on a sound-effects CD of rain falling. She was still writing when Labour came to power, when the millennium turned, when JK Rowling published one Harry Potter book after another.
“I’m a bad judge of how long something is going to take me,” says Clarke. “And my growing panic was partly about how long it was taking. But the real fear was that I wouldn’t be able to finish it. The work ahead of me didn’t seem to diminish, but the years behind me were piling up.” She says this from across a long table at the offices of Bloomsbury publishing in London. The table is evenly stacked with copies of her finished novel, Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell – 800 pages thick and 10 years in the writing, wearing spare and elegant black-and-white dust jackets. As we speak, it is at No 3 on the New York Times bestseller list in America.
In the UK, it made this year’s Booker Prize long list, but is much more popular than anything that made the short list, including the eventual winner by Alan Hollinghurst. Last week, New Line Cinema – owners of the Lord Of The Rings franchise – paid a reported (pounds) 700,000 for the movie rights. Clarke knows from experience “how quietly books can be published, even after a huge amount of work has been put into them”.
Her husband Colm Greenland is also a fiction writer, and his own novels have been released to low murmurs of appreciation. But Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell has come out to the clanging of bells. Which may be because it’s excellent – a long and deeply immersive story, full of entertaining characters and vivid events, told with a curious, old-fashioned patience and precision. “Just to tell a story,” says Clarke, “is a great and wonderful thing, and that is what I set out to do.”
It may also be because Bloomsbury declared it the book of the season. As JK Rowling’s publishers, they know well that their customers have a weakness for magic. And with Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell, Clarke has envisioned those gentlemen from her jigsaw as “the two greatest English magicians of the Age”. The Age being the Regency period, Jane Austen’s stomping ground – Napoleon is devouring the continent, and King George III is raving in a madhouse. “The past, to me, is quite romantic,” says Clarke. “I know that’s unrealistic, because life then was very hard. But there’s something comforting about that social world where there were certain rules on how to behave, an underlying, confident morality to it all. And I love the images of dark rooms in candlelight, and coaches speeding across dark moors in the snow. I enjoy it much more than any contemporary description of the M25.”
Her story winds a twisting path through the real and imaginary history of an England once ruled from York by a mysterious Dark Age magician known as the Raven King. Magic has since fallen into disuse, until the anti-social academic sorcerer Gilbert Norrell brings it back, within limits, for the benefit of the Empire, and his free-thinking student Jonathan Strange takes it much too far. Norrell is vaguely based on Clarke herself, while Strange is a renegade Lord Byron-type. Byron himself turns up at one point – as do the Duke of Wellington, Dr Samuel Johnson, and King George – and he’s a fan of Strange’s magic. “It was important to me,” says Clarke, “to make the magic as real as possible, and therefore it had to seem like any other kind of knowledge or technology. It had to be difficult, and produce as many problems as it solved.”
Besides the “richness and the big canvases” of Austen and Dickens, Clarke was thinking of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, in which magic is also presented as a practical science, and Charles Palliser’s vast neo-Victorian mystery The Quincunx. Fine books, but never especially fashionable. “It was a bad idea, in every sense, to start writing a book like this in 1993,” says Clarke. “There was no market then for a story about two adult magicians, written for an adult audience, in a literary, 19th century style.” But while she was writing, things changed just as much in the publishing world as in any other sphere.
And JK Rowling did more than most to effect them. “Yes, that was extraordinary. I watched the Harry Potter phenomenon grow, and lots of adults get into it, but as far as I knew the whole thing would be over by the time I finished my own book. I was warned that people would lose interest in magicians if I didn’t get a move on. But then came [The Golden Compass author] Philip Pullman, and it seemed that fantasy books might have a bit longer in the literary sunlight.” Some readers will likely hold the hype against the novel, and some have inevitably been sniffy about the subject matter – by definition, fantastical stories don’t engage directly with the real world, and tend to be dismissed as something lighter and flightier than literature.
Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell is as long as many of the great Russian novels, but certain critics and Booker judges seemed puzzled to find no deeper meaning or purpose in its ornate and monumental plot. The magic creates great set-pieces – all the statues babble ominously in York cathedral, warships are conjured out of rain – but it’s not a metaphor for anything.
“For some people, it’s not enough that a book is just a story, particularly a long book. I wouldn’t say there are no themes in it, but I wasn’t particularly conscious of them, and they weren’t the reason for writing. The reason was to tell the story. I had this kind of discussion about a year ago on a hiking trip with some friends. Someone was asking me what the message, or the idea of the book was. I said, it’s a narrative, I’m a narrative writer, it’s just a story. He said yes, but it’s about magicians and what do you think of them, and I said no, really, it’s a story. He couldn’t quite get this.” Unlike Pullman, Clarke makes no attempt to tread on God’s toes.
Her father was and is a Methodist minister, and gave her “some sense that the world we see is not the only world there is”. “But whatever I worked out as I was writing this book, my feelings about religion were not among them.” And her feelings about England, particularly the north – where Clarke lived as a child, moving from Durham, to Nottingham, to Scotland, to Yorkshire – are diffused into the dense mood of the book, with its weird environment where the weather has a personality and other worlds lurk behind the landscape. Her next book, she says, will be set in the same period and place. “The pull of England, to me, is more about that eerie, romantic atmosphere than anything else.” But for a book that took Clarke so long to write, there doesn’t seem to be much of Clarke in it. Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell is a curious artefact, a story that exists for its own sake, and somehow the magic is stronger because of it.
“It was never personal. I wasn’t writing to exorcise my demons. I only wanted to take readers over with a story, draw them in and enchant them. You can’t underestimate how much people want to be enchanted.”