Calling Susanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell a Harry Potter book for grown-ups (as so many already have) certainly serves the interests of publisher Bloomsbury—and rationalizes the 250,000-copy print run for a debut genre novel by a onetime cookbook editor. Yet Tolkien is probably a closer model: Clarke’s 800-page story of two sorcerers restoring magic to nineteenth-century England only hints at a vast and intricate alternate universe. “I quite often thought to myself, Nobody is going to understand this except me,” says Clarke.
Her England (circa 1807) teems with “magicians” who know every word ever written by their field’s earlier practitioners but have no idea how to bring the discipline to life. The great revival of the medieval craft falls to cranky Mr. Norrell and his cocky young sidekick, Jonathan, both of whom prove essential in winning the Napoleonic wars. Copious footnotes reference the vast lore of old magical England.
Since her Oxford days, Clarke has been drawn to the fantastical genres. “Life always seemed a bit boring,” says the child of itinerant Methodist ministers, “and we moved around a lot—quite often I felt like the new girl.” Still, polishing off the novel took a full decade of hard labor and delayed gratification. “I always felt it was a crazy thing to do,” says Clarke. “To sit at your desk for ten years and never go anywhere, that’s nuts! It’s nice to be free of it, actually.”