Influences strange & Mr Norrell

October 18, 2007

Books It is most curious, but I am starting to wonder whether the writing style so characteristic of Susanna Clarke’s epic tale of gentleman magicians in the 19th Century, “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” (Bloomsbury 2004), might not be starting to have an extraordinary effect on me. Indeed, it seems strangely infectious.

Of course, it is entirely appropriate that such a worthy novel, relating magical happenings in the early 1800’s, should assist the reader’s sense of immersion in the spirit of the time by adopting appropriate language. I am tempted to describe the style as sanitised Dickensian. It is however altogether more digestible than real works by say Dickens or Austen, and is a little faster-paced. For example, the reader is spared whole chapters describing the appearance of some character of secondary importance (see Footnote 1). Nevertheless, Ms. Clarke’s manner of writing is highly evocative of the classic 19th Century novel.

I have to say that I am becoming quite used to the character of the book, having now completed more than 28 chapters of it. So much so that I scarcely give it a second thought. I cannot, however, help feeling that the book in general, and the writing style in particular, are having an influence on me in ways I cannot master. I might almost be inclined to describe it as a rewiring of the circuits that make up my mind.

Why, this very morning, while driving my daughter to school I made a remark that seemed very ordinary to my ears but occasioned an odd look from her, as if she were beginning to have concerns about my sanity. My remark was this:

“I think, my darling, that you should ensure you have a warm garment with you when you journey to Manchester with your schoolfriends this afternoon. I fear the weather looks set to turn distinctly inclement”.

Her reply of “Yer what? You gone loopy? What’s with the weird lingo?” I found baffling and quite at a tangent, not to mention bordering on the impertinent.

Her observation did though prompt a double-take on my own part. It is not inconceivable that the book is starting to change the very essence of my waking thoughts. It is important to bear in mind that I am not, as might be imagined, reading the book in a conventional manner, holding an object of paper bound in leather and scanned with the eyes. Indeed no. The content of Ms. Clarke’s publication is, rather, being delivered direct to my ears in an audible form for I acquired it as an audiobook, and use the electronic apparatus in my motor vehicle to reproduce it as sound. The narrator is a gentleman named Simon Prebble, whose agreeable voice and manner of delivery are very apt for the task. This is so much the case that I cannot seem to expunge Mr Prebble’s engaging tones from my head. And whenever I write, it is as if I hear his voice dictating the words to me from within my mind, and spoken in the language of Ms Clarke’s excellent book.

It has not escaped me that I should complete the aforementioned work as soon as I can manage it, and purchase a quite different audio book, before the effect becomes permanent.

Footnote 1: By way of illustration, in his novel, A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens obliges the reader to endure an entire chapter dedicated to introducing a single somewhat unsavoury character, Jerry Cruncher, who is of little more than incidental relevance to the plot.

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  1. Indeed!

  2. According to that ultimate repository of worldly knowledge, Wikipedia, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is written in “a pastiche of Jane Austen’s literary style”, and not Dickensian at all. And it may well be, at that. It is of little enough concern to me.

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