With the fairies

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Susanna Clarke <em>Bloomsbury, 782pp, £17.99</em>

ISBN 0747570

Susanna Clarke's first novel has been bruited abroad for more than a year since it was bought by Bloomsbury. Reputedly ten years in the writing, the book has so far garnered its author £1m in advances. The premise is tantalising: Clarke has imagined an early 19th-century England in which magic is still studied as an academic discipline, but not practised. The Learned Society of York Magicians, curious as to this state of affairs, seeks out Mr Norrell, whose appetite for collecting every available book both of and about magic is the most obvious sign of a costive and cautious nature. He persuades them both of his skill as a practical magician and of the need for them to desist from studying magic themselves. When he arrives in London, Norrell crowns his reputation by raising from the dead Miss Wintertowne, the beautiful fiancee of his patron, Sir Walter Pole. From then on politicians and noblemen regard him with awe and seek to befriend him.

Unknown to everyone, however, the means by which Norrell revives the future Lady Pole is to make a bargain with a fairy - "a gentleman with thistle-down hair" - who agrees to share half her life. The unforeseen effect of the pact is that, while seemingly present in our world, she is dancing the night away in Faerie. Sir Walter's dignified and thoughtful black manservant, Stephen, is also made to drag through his working life in a stupor while the thistle-down-haired gentleman showers him with gifts and renders King George mad to pave the way for his favourite to become king instead.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Strange has also set himself up as a practical magician (having failed at everything else). As passionate and impulsive as Norrell is measured and cautious, he has a charming wife, Arabella, but few magic books. The younger magician becomes Norrell's pupil, thinking his teacher "at one and the same time the most remarkable man of the Age and the most tedious". Strange's conviction that magic stems from the mysterious Raven King of medieval times is strikingly at odds with Norrell's hope that English magic "should be regarded as a quiet, respectable sort of profession", second only to entering the Church. Strange decamps to Spain, where he helps a sceptical Duke of Wellington win numerous campaigns by altering the weather, the flow of rivers and even the position of whole cities. Yet when asked by the great general whether he can kill by magic, he answers: "I suppose a magician might, but a gentleman never could."

This, in other words, is a tale of magic such as might have been written by the young Jane Austen - or, perhaps, by the young Mrs Radcliffe, whose Gothic imagination and exuberant delicacy of style set the key. Herein lies both its originality and its dissonance. As pastiche, it is a good joke, though not one worthy of 800 pages. As fantasy, it is deplorable, given that it fails to embrace the essentially anarchic nature of such tales. What is so wonderful about magicians, wizards and all witches other than Morgan le Fay is not just their magical powers, but that they possess these in spite of being low-born. Far from caring about being gentlemen, wizards are the ultimate expression of rank's irrelevance to talent; and if both Ursula le Guin and J K Rowling are close to vehement on this point, it is no doubt because, historically, fairy tales have been captured and bowdlerised by the aristocracy to the degree that you could well believe magic, like fox-hunting and private education, to be the preserve of posh people.

Clarke's scholarship, quirkiness and gift for description make it hard to believe that she takes this stuffy Georgian nonsense seriously: there are simply too many touches of humour, especially in the footnotes, which solemnly recount myths and tales of wonder and then doubt them. But the result is that, for this reader at least, it is impossible to fall in love with her book.

Buried inside its monstrous bulk is, in fact, a wonderful tale about a marriage lost and found. Yet this reveals itself only in the last 200 pages, when Strange's lively, sympathetic wife is also stolen away by the fairies; the parallels between madness and the glamour of enchantment are drawn with sympathy and skill. How Strange sets both Arabella and Lady Pole free at the cost of his own liberty and how the only engaging character, Stephen Black, does indeed become a king almost make the slog through the rest of the novel worthwhile. As it stands, however, it is neither an addition to the canon of great fantasy literature nor worthy of its place on the Booker Prize longlist.

Amanda Craig is the author of In a Dark Wood (Fourth Estate) and, most recently, Love in Idleness (Abacus)

This article first appeared in the 27 September 2004 issue of the New Statesman, The real Tony Blair