How Susanna Clarke starts “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell”
Asking the right questions
(This essay also appears as a video on YouTube.)
“It is not an age for magic or scholarship,” says one of the characters in the novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. “Tradesmen prosper, sailors, politicians, but not magicians. Our time is past.”
Fantasy stories are often set in a time and place that’s long past. But like science fiction, the fantasy genre also explores questions that resonate with us in our non-fantastical world. And a question like that kicks off Susanna Clarke’s award-winning book about magic in the era of the Napoleonic War. It’s one of the reasons the novel’s first chapter is so effective at pulling us into a thousand-page story.
I’m learning about how the openings of great books hook their readers, so I can apply those lessons to my own writing. Today, I’m looking at how questions drive a story.
Let’s see how the right question draws us into the magical world of Susanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.
Stories and questions
I’ve been reading a terrific book on writing called The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. One of the intriguing theories he throws out—and I’m paraphrasing here—is that every great story is about how a human being can grow and change. Every great story forces a protagonist into a difficult situation and asks, “What’s the right way to act here? What’s important in life?” The details of individual stories might be different, but a lot of the stories that last have this kind of moral question at their heart. Now, that theory may or may not be empirically true. But what I do find interesting is the idea that stories are driven by questions, and that they try to deliver answers to those questions.
TV shows routinely use this device. The episode opens with a teaser scene. An unexpected image triggers our curiosity. We ask ourselves, “How did we get here? What would push someone to act like they do in that situation? How are they going to get out of it?” And before the opening scene answers it, it cuts. We’re left with a cliffhanger, and that basic question, “What happens next?”
The episode then jumps back to an earlier point, to the start of the change in the character. We see everything that set the character on their path. The ominous foreshadowing. The chance meetings. Everything that led the character, step by step, from the status quo of their life, to the dramatic tipping point of the teaser.
When the story loops back to that teaser scene, we finally find out what the character ends up doing to get out of it. And especially if it’s the pilot episode, their life is forever changed based on what they decide to do. That decision reflects the show’s moral argument, to borrow Truby’s lingo. It’s the show’s response to the age-old moral question: “How should a person live in the world?” How should we act when faced with impossible odds? Can we grow despite immense suffering? And what happens to us along the way?
Of course, questions aren’t just for TV pilots and cliffhangers. In the detective genre, the story starts with a murder or crime. The story’s protagonists then try to figure out who’s behind it. I mean, one of the nicknames for that genre is itself a question: whodunnit?
Some of the most iconic science-fiction stories are driven by questions, too. Sure, there’s space ships and robots and aliens. That’s all the fun stuff. But I’m talking about the way stories focus on an anxiety about modern culture or technology. They magnify that anxiety into something almost prophetic. It’s all part of the story asking, “What’s does this problem say about us? Is this how we want to live?”
So beyond the entertainment value of stories — which I don’t want to discount — it’s almost the job of stories to ask questions. It’s the job of characters to explore things we as readers can’t explore ourselves.
Susanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell does that, too: it takes us to places we can’t go ourselves. There’s a rich atmosphere and world, a lots of lively characters. But what I think is so effective at hooking us from the start is a simple question. It drives the plot, but it’s also a powerful reflection of the reader’s curiosity and longing.
Let’s open up Chapter 1 and see how it works.
Plot Summary of Chapter 1
“Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians.” And by some years, the narrator means the year 1806. And magicians aren’t stage magicians or sorcerers. These magicians are academics who discuss magic as a theoretical and historical phenomenon. They’re like university scholars who discuss, say, a dead language, or the cosmological mathematics of the Big Bang.
But one day, a young man named John Segundus arrives at the York Society of Magicians. He’s a scholar of magic himself, and his studies have led him to York in search of an answer to a question.
He had begun to wonder why the great feats of magic that he read about remained on the pages of his book and were no longer seen in the street or written about in the newspapers. Mr Segundus wished to know, he said, why modern magicians were unable to work the magic they wrote about. In short, he wished to know why there was no more magic done in England.
The York Society bigwigs laugh at the question. After all, no one asks astronomers to make new stars. And besides, magic isn’t something respectable gentlemen do.
Anyone who claims to do magic should be shunned by polite society, the way lowly street performers are shunned by the upper classes.
There is one York Society scholar, though, a Mr Honeyfoot, who encourages Segundus to continue his search. “It was the want of the right question which held us back before,” he says. “Now that you are come we shall do great things.”
Together, they begin investigating why there is no more magic done in England. Even if the York Society of Magicians isn’t sympathetic to Segundus’s curiosity, there are others out there who are.
Honeyfoot recalls a society of magicians who, years earlier, lived in Manchester. These modern, rational, pragmatic men tried to revive the long-lost art of magic using the new scientific means of the age. But, they failed. They became disillusioned. They wrote tracts about how all the old stories of English magic were hoaxes and fairy tales. After all, it’s the early nineteenth century. “It is not an age for magic or scholarship,” Honeyfoot says. “Our time is past.”
He recalls yet another gentleman, a reclusive fellow the York Society tried to meet once. The York Society corresponded with this scholar only briefly, but decided he couldn’t really be a magician because he had — wait for it — poor penmanship.
But Segundus and Honeyfoot aren’t so discriminating. Honeyfoot convinces Segundus that the question, “Why is there no more magic done in England?” demands they investigate every lead.
So they contact the reclusive magician, one Mr Norrell, who lives in an estate outside of York. According to rumours, he has the greatest library of magic books anywhere. So, the answer to their pressing question must be found there. They write Norrell to ask if they might visit, and Norrell agrees.
When Segundus and Honeyfoot arrived at his manor, they immediately sense something odd about the place.
It radiates a strange light wherever they go. The halls seem to shift and twist around them. And Norrell’s assistant has a shadowy air about him.
As for Mr Norrell himself, he’s a quiet and cynical man, but he shows them to his library. Segundus and Honeyfoot are like kids in a candy store: every book of magic they’ve ever heard of is here! But Norrell is intimately familiar with all these books. He has a low opinion of the old scholars of magic. Nevertheless, Segundus and Honeyfoot are impressed by Norrell’s expertise. They work up the courage to ask him their burning question: “Why is no more magic done in England?”
Norrell looks at them with a bit of confusion. He says it’s the wrong question. Magic hasn’t ended in England. “I myself am a quite tolerable practical magician.”
Driving the plot
There are so many things I love in that first chapter. I remember picking up the novel at the bookstore. It was on a shelf of employee recommendations. I had seen it before, but at that exact moment I was looking for something substantial to lose myself in.
So I opened the book. The first sentence pulled me from the bookstore, across two centuries and across an ocean, into the world of the story. What’s also wonderful about the first chapter is how it’s a little, self-contained quest with a beginning, middle and end. And all along that beginning, middle and end is that question about the state of English magic.
And I tried, in my plot summary, to repeat that question as often as the story does in the first chapter. It actually comes up four times in the span of about fifteen pages. The characters and, really, the author, keep that question and the mystery surrounding it at the forefront of the action.
And in terms of structure and plot mechanics, that clear goal tells us what the book is about and what’s at stake. The fact that I’m reminded, every other page, what that question is, kind of prevents me from ever forgetting what’s driving the story forward.
But the question and the quest don’t matter if we don’t care about the answer. Maybe the question sticks out like a sore thumb now, but the first time I read the book, it was just another facet of a world and story I wanted to sink into.
And that brings me to what I would consider the subtle intelligence of that question. It’s not so much that it’s about why there isn’t magic in England. It’s really asking, “Why isn’t there magic in the world, period?” Segundus is almost like a modern fanboy. He’s spent his life studying magical tales. He has this ache and longing for a more magical time and a more magical world.
And he’s not the only one who had that longing. The story is set in the early eighteen-hundreds, right in the middle of the age of Romanticism. This was a movement in art, literature, philosophy and music. Romanticism valued things like imagination, individualism, nature, and beauty.
It was a reaction against the scientific rationalism of the era. This was the height of the Industrial Revolution, when human life (at least in Europe) was becoming more mechanized. Science was going from one success to another in explaining how the world worked.
But for the brooding, melancholic Romantics, something was missing despite all that progress. They missed the wonder and dread of life, those feelings that were common when humanity lived closer to nature. They cherished beauty and emotion instead of mechanical efficiency or cold rationalism.
So, the question of why there’s no more magic in the world is, itself, an expression of Romanticism. To me, it’s the reason the novel is set during that time period at all, instead of some other era. It’s amazing how one question can actually shape an entire literary world.
Aspirational and relatable
But I think the more interesting wisdom of the question is how relatable and aspirational it is.
I’m borrowing those terms from some animation writing workshops and pitch camps I’ve attended. Production studios usually have guidelines for writers who want to pitch ideas for shows. Those guidelines say any new idea should embody two important qualities. It should be relatable and aspirational.
A relatable character is one we can see ourselves in. We recognize something about them. Their personality. Their sense of humour. Their neighbourhood. Their wants and needs and problems.
And an aspirational character lives in a story we wish we could be a part of. Maybe they travel the world having adventures with a magical dog. Or they train to become a cosmic superhero. Or they solve mysteries and conspiracies in a small, haunted town.
So if you have a relatable character who goes on an aspirational journey, you have some of the ingredients of a solid animation pitch.
The question of “why is there no more magic in the world” feels, to me, both relatable and aspirational. I mean, I would definitely consider myself a hopeless Romantic, so obviously I think that. But I also think that question lives inside every reader of fantasy.
On the surface, we’re drawn to fantasy because of the tropes of the genre. You know, it’s a setting that’s magical in the way that the real world rarely is.
We only catch glimpses of that magic. When we pray in the dark. When we experience deja vu or coincidence. When our breath is taken away. When we look up into the universe. When we see life in a baby’s eyes. It’s an emotional force, and it’s so elusive. It’s not as present as physical forces like gravity or electromagnetism. Except when we read fantasy. In our myths and legends and scriptures, that type of magic is everywhere. So we wonder: Where did it all go? Why can’t we live like that all the time?
And that’s why we love the fantasy genre: so we can live, at least vicariously, in that kind of world again. I mean, it’s right there in the name of the genre; it’s our fantasy.
Susanna Clarke had the insight to name a question so fundamental to fantasy that it would speak to anyone with even a mild interest in the genre. Whether or not we ever articulated that question ourselves, we relate to the characters because they share our curiosity. The story taps into the yearning that a lot of readers have. It might even be the yearning that motivated us to read and to be transported by fiction in the first place. So I don’t think we can help ourselves in wanting to find out the answer.
And, now comes the hard part. As a writer, can you find a question that meaningful to your readers? A question they didn’t even know they had inside them, but one that feels completely familiar and true? And how do you voice that question? How do you explore it? What does a story with such a question look like? Well, that’s a question only you can answer.
I’d love to know if this look at Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell gave you new things to think about for your own writing.
What did you think about the first chapter of the novel? Does that driving question speak to you? Or is there something else about the first chapter — like the world-building, the narrative voice, the characters — that you think makes it so strong?
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