72 pages 2 hours read

Susanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2004

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is Susanna Clarke’s first novel. Published in 2004, this novel creates an alternate history in which magic is a part of England’s history and its future. The two title characters engage in a battle over the proper use of that magic, leading to unintended consequences. Clarke tells her story through the conventions of 19th-century English novels, with Jane Austen being a major inspiration. Clarke was nominated for the Man Booker Prize and won the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel. An adaptation of the book aired on BBC One in 2015. This guide is based on the electronic Kindle edition by Bloomsbury.

Content Warning: The source material features ableist language and attitudes related to psychological illnesses. The terms “mad” and “madness” appear in the text. That language is maintained in direct quotes and placed in scare quotes otherwise. In addition, the text includes denigrating representation of people of color.

Plot Summary

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell occurs in an alternate version of early 19th-century England, one in which magic exists but has mostly disappeared. John Uskglass, the Raven King, created a distinctly English form of magic during medieval times. Elemental and natural elements such as ravens, trees, stones, water, and earth are the tools of Uskglass’s magic, which also incorporates elements that he learned in the Other Lands (Faerie) after the fairies kidnapped him during infancy and enslaved him. As a teen, the Raven King returned to England and captured most of Northern England using an army of fairies and ravens, the birds that became his sigil.

For 300 years, Uskglass systematized English magic and trained all the significant magicians. When he left 300 years before the events of the novel, English magic dwindled. In the present day of the novel, magic is the purview of gentlemen-magicians who have only theoretical knowledge and scant volumes on magical practices that serve as sources for their scholarly work.

In Volume 1, “Mr Norrell,” the novel introduces Mr. Norrell, who is a reclusive gentleman-magician of York in possession of a large collection of books on and of magic, a real feat considering even the respected York Society of Magicians owns just a few volumes. When gentlemen-magicians Segundus and Honeyfoot visit Norrell at his home in Hurtfew Abbey, York, they are shocked when he tells them he is the only practical (practicing) magician in all of England. He hopes to revive English magic, but he rejects the wild, medieval magic of John Uskglass. He instead wants magic to be a highly regulated and respected profession with him as the only practitioner. He makes the stones at the cathedral at York talk and sing in exchange for all the York magicians agreeing never to practice magic again. Segundus is the only one who refuses the bargain.

Norrell goes to London. His arrogance, dislike of people, and habit of offering boring lectures on magic initially prevent him from occupying the place he believes he deserves in English society. He overcomes these obstacles when hanger-on Drawlight eases his way into society, and Lascelles, a man who is nominally a gentleman, sets himself up as Norrell’s assistant. The government has no use for Norrell because he cannot explain how magic might be used practically to help the country to win the long war with Napoleon Bonaparte or resolve the economic and social upheavals of the early Industrial Revolution.

Norrell finally gains some standing when he resurrects Emma Wintertowne, the fiancé of Walter Pole, a minister in the government, after Emma dies of tuberculosis. Norrell tells no one that he bargained with a fairy, a man with thistle-down hair, to resurrect Emma at the cost of half her life and one of her little fingers. Pole marries Emma, making her Lady Pole, but after a few weeks, she becomes withdrawn and seems increasingly troubled with some psychological illness. The fairy takes half of Emma’s life each day by carrying her off to Lost-hope, a nightmarish manor where she is forced to dance every night.

Bells and other strange phenomena cast a pall over the Pole household, so much so that even Stephen Black, a Black British man who serves as the butler, begins to show signs of illness. Like Emma, he is forced to spend his nights dancing at Lost-hope after he comes to the attention of the fairy due to his excellent, deferential manner. The fairy intends to kill King George III and install Stephen as the English king. To this end, the fairy systematically gathers all the symbols of kingship—including the name Stephen’s mother gave him before she died giving birth on a slave ship. Emma Pole and Stephen Black are unable to say anything about their predicament because the man with the thistle-down hair places a spell of silence on them that causes them to spout nonsense when they attempt to tell anyone about their enchantment.

Meanwhile, aimless Gloucestershire gentleman Jonathan Strange inherits a fortune and an estate. He takes up magic after a chance encounter with Vinculus, a London street magician whom Norrell ran out of the city. Vinculus delivers a prophecy to Norrell, Strange, Black, and Childermass about a great magical struggle to come and the return of the Raven King. Strange marries Arabella Woodhope and announces his decision to become a magician to avoid her accusations of idleness. Using some of Norrell’s spells that he bought from Vinculus, Jonathan performs his first act of magic. He later goes to London to study under Mr. Norrell. Meanwhile, Arabella Strange is Lady Pole’s only visitor. Arabella regularly chats with the fairy but assumes he is a Pole relation.

In Volume 2, “Jonathan Strange,” Norrell is both delighted and terrified to have a pupil. While Norrell’s magic is disciplined and conservative, Strange’s is improvisational and intuitive, making the two greater than the sum of their individual talents. Norrell is so intent on controlling magic that he hides the most important of his books from Strange by sending them to Hurtfew Abbey. He quashes any of Strange’s attempts to experiment and study magic that Norrell believes is not respectable, especially anything having to do with fairies or the Raven King.

Together, the two magicians are finally able to use spells to help the English fight successfully against the Napoleonic alliance, with Strange traveling to fight in Spain alongside Lord Wellington, commander of England’s army. With a limited supply of books, Strange is forced to perform dark battlefield magic not seen since the age of the Raven King. He uses this magic again to help Wellington win the Battle of Waterloo, a battle that decides the war in favor of England. When Strange returns, he is no longer content to abide by Norrell’s narrow vision of magic. He breaks with Norrell by publishing a scathing review of Norrell’s recently published book, using brutal language to question Norrell’s erasure of the historical role of the Raven King. Free of Norrell, Jonathan Strange writes and publishes his own book on practical English magic, with the Raven King’s nature-based practices at the center of his history.

In Volume 3, “John Uskglass,” Walter Pole puts Emma in an “asylum” (a precursor to the modern-day psychiatric hospital) after she shoots Childermass during an attempt on Norrell’s life. Strange learns how to access the Raven King’s long deserted magical roads using magic and any reflective surface. Norrell causes the words of all copies of Strange’s book to disappear, and he writes to all the angry buyers to explain himself. The man with the thistle-down hair decides to make Arabella another inmate of Lost-hope. Using magic, he creates a double of Arabella. The double dies, and the fairy kidnaps Arabella. Strange, believing Arabella to be dead, falls into a deep depression and travels to Venice to continue his study of the Raven King. He uses magic to force a psychological break because he believes only those with psychological illnesses can truly access the Raven King’s magic.

Jonathan Strange loses control over the magic, causing a pillar of darkness and eternal night to manifest in one section of Venice. He discovers that any magician need only call on water, stones, trees, and birds to perform magic, and he uses his newfound skills to breach Norrell’s library at Hurtfew. The two men have been lonely without each other. While using a spell intended to summon the Raven King, they inadvertently give Stephen Black power over England just long enough to destroy the man with the thistle-down hair. The Raven King returns briefly and English magic along with him. Lady Pole, Stephen Black, and Arabella Strange are freed from their enchantments, but Norrell and Jonathan Strange are trapped together in the pillar of darkness and eternal night forever. Stephen Black becomes the king in Faerie. Strange and Norrell enjoy the ability to focus on magic alone. Arabella and Jonathan see each other one last time before Jonathan retreats to continue his experiments.

Clarke develops themes related to the Nature of Power, The Quest for Knowledge, Theory Versus Practice, and the Magical Versus the Mundane World by re-imagining early-19th-century England. Her alternative history of this England reflects the influence of English novelists such as Jane Austen, most particularly in her biting satire of the English class system.

blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text

Related Titles

By Susanna Clarke