Neil Gaiman on why he loves Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Neil Gaiman

In his introduction to Susanna Clarke's magical novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Neil Gaiman, the multi award-winning bestselling author, tells us how he became aware of the author and her book – and the effect both encounters have had on him.

Neil Gaiman on his love of Susanna Clarke's fantasy epic, now a major BBC Drama

The thing of it is...

This is a very poor introduction to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (whose name, by the way, rhymes with Quarrel, or with Sorrel, when Susanna Clarke pronounces it), and an equally meagre introduction to the person of Susanna Clarke. They both deserve better.

Notwithstanding, it is my story, and I shall tell it my way, which is the story of how I became aware of Susanna Clarke and of her book.

 

When our story begins, I was a scribbling person, who made stories and such...

I moved to America from England in 1992 and I missed my friends, so I was exceedingly delighted when the post brought a large envelope from one of them, a Mr. Colin Greenland. Mr. Greenland had been one of the first persons I had encountered a decade earlier when I had stumbled into the worlds of science fiction and of fantasy: an elfin gentleman with a faintly piratical air, who wrote excellent books. Inside the envelope was a letter, in which Mr Greenland explained that he had just taught a writing workshop, and that one of the writers at the workshop was a remarkable woman of great talent, and that he wished me to read her work. He enclosed an extract from a short story.

I read it, and wrote back, and demanded more.


Gaiman photographed by Stanislav Lvovsky

This came as some surprise to Susanna Clarke, who had no idea that Colin had sent me an extract from `The Ladies of Grace Adieu'. Gamely, though, she sent me the rest of the story. I loved everything about it: the plot, the magic, the glorious way Susanna put words together, and was particularly delighted by the information in the cover letter that Susanna was writing a novel set in the world of the tale, and that it would be called Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – so delighted that I sent the story to an editor of my acquaintance. He called Susanna and asked to buy her story for an anthology he was editing.

This came, again, as some surprise to Susanna Clarke, who, once she had established that this was none of it a prank (for after all, it is hard enough to sell short stories in this world, but to sell your first short story when you had not even sent it to an editor borders on the unlikely, and crosses that border).

I was excited by the prospect of meeting Susanna Clarke, and when I did finally meet her it was in the company of Colin Greenland, who had, shortly after their first encounter, persuaded her to entertain his suit (an odd expression, now I come to write it down. I mean that they had become lovers and partners, not that he had removed his clothes and left them with her while she performed small puppet shows for them). From the stories of hers that I had read – Ms Clarke sent me her short stories when she wrote them, every year or so, with a note telling me she was still writing the novel – I was expecting someone of a fey disposition, perhaps slightly out of her own Time, and was pleasantly surprised myself to meet a sharp, smart woman with a ready smile and easy wit, who loved to talk books and authors. I took particular delight in how well she understood high and low culture, and how comfortably she went between them, seeing them (correctly, in my opinion) not as opposites to be reconciled but as different ways of addressing the same ideas.


Susannah Clarke. Image Source: Bloomsbury 

For the next decade, people would ask me who my favourite authors were, and I would place Susanna Clarke on any lists I made, explaining that she had written short stories, only a handful but that each was a gem, that she was working on a novel, and that one day everyone would have heard of her. And by everyone, I meant only a small number of people, but those who counted. I assumed that the work of Susanna Clarke was a refined taste that would be too unusual and strange for the general public.

In February 2004, to my perplexity and my delight, the mail brought an advanced, but finished, copy of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I took my daughters on holiday to the Cayman Islands, and while they romped and swam in the surf, I was hundreds of years and thousands of miles away, in Regency York and in

London and on the Continent, experiencing nothing but the purest pleasure, wandering through the words and the things they brought with them, and eventually noticing that the paths and lanes of the story, with its footnotes and its fine phrases, had become a huge road, and it was taking me with it. Seven Hundred and Eighty-Two Pages, and I enjoyed every page, and when the book was done I could happily have read seven hundred and eighty-two more. I loved the things she said and the things she did not say. I loved crabbed Norrell and, less feckless than he seems, Strange, and John Uskglass the Raven King, who is not in the title of the book unless he hides behind the ampersand, but who hovers there anyhow. I loved the supporting players, the footnotes, and the author – she is not, I am convinced, Ms Clarke, but a character in her own right, writing her book closer to Strange and Norrell's time than our own.


Image Source: BBC

I wrote about the experience of reading the book in my online journal, and I wrote to Susanna's editor telling her that it was to my mind the finest work of English fantasy written in the previous seventy years. (I was thinking that the only thing it could be compared to was Hope Mirlees' novel Lud-in-the-Mist. Sometimes people would ask me about Tolkien and I would explain that I did not, and do not, think of The Lord of the Rings as English Fantasy but as High Fantasy.) It was a novel about the reconciliation of the mundane and the miraculous, in which the world of faerie and the world of men are perhaps not as divided as they appear, but might simply be different ways of addressing the same thing.

I was right about how good a book it was, and how much people would like it. I was wrong about one thing, and one thing only, in that I had thought that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell would be a book for the few – that it would touch only a handful of people, and those people deeply, and when they encountered each other they would speak of Arabella, or Stephen Black, or of Childermass or the Gentleman with the Thistle-Down Hair in the way that people talk of old acquaintances, and bonds of friendship would be formed between strangers. I daresay they do, and they are, but there are not a tiny handful of them but an army as big as Wellington's, or bigger. The book became that rare thing, a fine and wonderful book that found its readers, all across the world, and was garlanded and lauded and awarded and acclaimed.

And it is with that thought that this introduction comes to an end.

Neil Gaiman Jonathan Strange Book Infographics

I am delighted to report, by way of postscript, that Ms Clarke has remained quite unspoiled by success, and that she is the same sharp, smart woman with the same ready wit who I met over a decade ago, and though her hair has now turned completely white, it has done so in an elegant and stylish way, which means she cuts an imposing figure on the back of book jackets. Colin Greenland, on the other hand, has become significantly less elfin as the years have gone by, but what he has lost in elvishness he has made up for in wizardliness, and now gives the vague impression that he is merely waiting for a team of hobbits to pass by in order to send them upon an adventure, although the piratical glint in his eye would cause me to think twice about going on such an adventure were I one of those hobbits and not, as I am, a scribbling person.

Neil Gaiman, July 2009

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, published by Bloomsbury. Paperback, £8.99. To buy it for £7.99, click here.

You can also buy the BBC DVD of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell from the Reader's Digest Shop