Growing Humility: A review of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

by Mr. Sheehy

If we put one’s estimation of oneself on a continuum-raw arrogance on the right and pure humility to the left-and asked our culture to place a dot on the ideal spot, the dot would not likely land too far to the left. It might, I would guess, land somewhere in the middle, perhaps with the trumpeted aphorism, “moderation in everything.” It is no accident, as my pastor recently observed, that William J. Bennett’s Book of Virtues did not feature humility. Not that our culture looks down on those with humility, but when we observe the celebrity-factory that is our pop culture and our fascination with the trash-talk of professional sports’ stars, we recognize that we’re not bothered by humility’s absence.

As one might guess, I would put the ideal-dot somewhere different. I would put it as far to the left as we could go-the more humble, the better. If a real person did suggest that moderation was appropriate with humility, I would suggest that real person did not consider humility an actual virtue. With virtues, one can never have enough. With humility, I’d say the more humble you are, the more humane you are. Or, to coin another ridiculous phrase off a going cliché, if one’s praises are to be sung, may they be sung by someone else.

Literature has held up humility as virtuous before-Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” for example, and Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch. In these examples and others, humility is most often either conspicuously absent or a present and admirable virtue. One of the reasons I particularly enjoy Susana Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, though, is that it not only displays humility, but shows us the growth of it. Pride and humility are not the only driving themes of the novel, but they are central forces and they are explored convincingly through more than one character, from the self-conscious self-absorption of Mr. Norrell to the charismatic pride of Jonathan Strange.

The reality, the believability, of these characters and the entire novel is part of what makes it so worthwhile, so worth entering its world, a world complete with its own history of English magic. That history is often detailed in footnotes, and while the notes are much more interesting than the counterparts I find in most non-fiction books, their presence aids my efforts as a reader to suspend the reality I know.

The believability of characters, however, does not suck away their memorable and interesting quality. I find particular amusement with John Childermass, Mr. Norrell’s mysterious and somewhat grumpy servant, and Vinculus, an absurdly pitiful street charlatan and magician who grates on the nerves of Mr. Norrell. These are hardly the only characters to which I am drawn, and the novel is full of archetypes both familiar and intriguing: the selfish-hoarder, the self-conscious talent, the wise servant, the creative prodigy, the sleazy ‘friends,’ the dedicated servant, the neglected wife, the beautiful victim, and many more. Each, it seems, is developed to roundness, or at least to a pleasing flatness.

Obviously one has room for rich character development in almost 800 pages, but I have little complaint with Clarke’s taking so many words to weave her tale. One reason I grant her the chance to go on so long is that I enjoy the tone of the omniscient-yet-real narrator, a local individual who reports on events years after they take place. This narrator seems to have captured the lightness and reporter-like expertise I enjoy so much in classic novelists like Dickens. In particular, I enjoy the subtle humor, like when a group of government Ministers debate how to use their newly hired magician, Mr. Norrell. After much deliberation, they decide he should aid the country in the war against Napoleon by bringing Mr. William Pitt the Younger back from the dead. Mr. Norrell, I should note, has recently gained prominence by resurrecting one Minister’s wife:

Sir Walter told [Mr. Norrell] that they were contemplating another resurrection.

Mr. Norrell turned very pale and muttered something . . . the Ministers did not know what they were asking.

But when Mr Norrell understood better who it was that they proposed as a candidate, he looked a great deal relieved and was heard to say something about the condition of the body.

Then the Ministers thought how Mr. Pitt had been dead for almost two years, and that, devoted as they had been to Pitt in his life, they really had very little desire to see him in his present condition. Lord Chamberlin (Mr Pitt’s brother) remarked sadly that poor William would certainly have come a good deal unraveled by now.

The subject was not mentioned again. (99)

I don’t expect such subtlety of humor to appeal to many others; I am used to the AP students’ blank looks when I state how funny I find Pride and Prejudice. For me, such humor is part of what enables a book to carry on without bogging down while remaining serious enough to maneuver through complex themes.

I might as well add that I also find it wonderful to discover a modern novel that, like the books labeled classic, hands me a love story minus pointless sensuality.

The book is not perfect, of course. Certain scenes do feel long (particularly the early scenes involving the fairy, a man with “thistle-down hair”) and here and there a character feels unnecessary (a section including Lord Byron, while fun for a literature-dweeb like me, does ultimately appear gratuitous), but these detractors are slim.

There are many themes present to explore in Susana Clarke’s novel. I come away from Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell particularly pleased with the insight it lends me into humility–how a new perspective on life’s driving forces can flick one’s attitude from grandiose pride to the most reverent humility, all in a moment. Humility, as opposed to those other virtues in Bennet’s book, seems to come not over time through careful training and pursuit, but in an instant, through a changed perspective. At least, that’s how Clarke portrays it, and that’s how I have observed it in others. Perhaps its maintenance would then consist of reminding one’s self constantly about the continuing reality of that new perspective.

However it is done, I would love to have more of it, and I’m glad Clarke has got me thinking of how to accomplish the feat.

Thanks for reading.