Fairies and Society
By Cheryl Morgan
The new book from Susanna Clarke comes as a splendid hardcover edition complete even with a ribbon bookmark. Bloomsbury is pushing the boat out on this one, and so they should. According to their publicity, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell sold almost half a million copies in the UK alone. Thatís not bad going for a very long book packed with footnotes.
The new book, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, is a collection of short stories dating back to 1996. Only one of the stories is new, though some of them may surprise. The title story, which is also the oldest, comes from Patrick Nielsen Haydenís Starlight 1 anthology, and features Jonathan Strange. Yes, really, that long ago.
Fans who came to Clarkeís work via the novel will probably be disappointed that it is only the title story that involves the lead characters from the novel, although other stories are set in the same milieu. All of the tales are fairy-related in some way. But perhaps the most striking thing about them is that they illustrate what a magnificent balancing act JS&MN is.
What do I mean by that? Well, letís look at the stories. "The Ladies of Grace Adieu" could have jumped straight out of the novel. Indeed, I suspect it might have originally been part of it, but was extracted separately because the book was getting over-long. The only thing it doesnít have is footnotes. So far so good.
"On Lickerish Hill", in contrast, is a classic fairy story. So classic, in fact, that anyone who has read a fair amount of English folklore will recognize it instantly and be able to guess the ending. It is also written in very heavy dialect, which would have been very hard going in a long novel.
Next up is "Mrs. Mabb", which is set in the same historical period as JS&MN, but is again a classic fairy story. Again you know pretty much what will happen, and thereís no sense of "this is something strange and new" because the mortals are mortals, the fairies are fairies and there are no English Magicians.
"The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse" is actually set in the world of Neil Gaimanís novel, Stardust, although it isnít necessary to know that to read the story. As with JS&MN, it makes good use of an historical character, but again it is a re-telling of standard fairy themes and is, I thought, rather unconvincing.
Next we have "Mr. Simonelli or The Fairy Widower". This is again set in the Regency period, or thereabouts, and features a character who is part-fairy. It has many of the features of Regency fiction that really irritate me, and I was left thinking that if JS&MN had been like this, while it might have done OK, it would not have been nearly so successful. I certainly wouldnít have read it.
"Oh! And they read English novels! David! Did you ever look into an English novel? Well, do not trouble yourself. It is nothing but a lot of nonsense about girls with fanciful names getting married."
From "Tom Brightwind"
"Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge was Built at Thoresby" is my favorite story from the book. It takes a slightly different tack to JS&MN in that it has a fairy prince (Tom of the title) living in London amongst mortals. The story tells how Tom accompanies a mortal friend on a trip to the Midlands and the interesting effect they have on a small country town. It is again a good mix of traditional fairy themes with sharp observation of people and society. It also exhibits plenty of the sparkling Clarke wit.
With characteristic exuberance Tom named this curiously constructed house Castel de Tours saunz Nowmbre, which means the Castle of Innumerable Towers. David Montefiore had counted the innumerable towers in 1764. There were fourteen of them.
From "Tom Brightwind"
And it has footnotes. This one is part of a note on the sort of places in which fairies lived before they got civilization.
The truth is that the brugh was a hole or series of interconnecting holes what was dug into a barrow, very like a rabbitís warren or badgerís set. To paraphrase a writer of fanciful stories for children, this was not a comfortable hole, it was not even a dry, bare sandy hole; it was a nasty, dirty, wet hole.
From "Tom Brightwind"
"Antickes and Frets" is the odd story out in that it is set in Elizabethan times. It tells of how Mary Queen of Scots tried to use witchcraft to kill Elizabeth I. It s not at all clear whether any real magic happens, although to the people of that time Iím sure it would seem as if it had.
Finally we have the new story, "John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner". Although this features the Raven King, it is in fact another re-telling of folklore, this time of the type in which a mighty fairy prince is outwitted by a stubborn peasant and a bunch of saints. It feels like a story that might be told within JS&MN, but not at all part of the plot.
What Iíve tried to illustrate here is that Clarke has written a whole bunch of good folklore tales, many of them set in the Regency period, but most of which lack the spark that made JS&MN such a successful book. The collection may introduce a lot of new people to traditional English folk tales, which will be a good thing (I fondly await reviews that compliment Clarke on the originality of her plots). Also the stories, with the possible exception of the Wellington one, are very well written. But they are, for the most part, not JS&MN, or even "more like this." They all have an excellent sense of British folklore, and will appeal to lovers of good fairy fiction because of it. Some of them also have the air of Regency novels. But only rarely do they exhibit that magnificent feat of literary alchemy that made JS&MN so good. And that, I submit, is because it is very hard to do. So while I am slightly disappointed with the collection as a collection, I have come away with it even more impressed by Clarkeís novel.
The book includes numerous illustrations by Charles Vess. Iím assuming that most Emerald City readers will be familiar with his work, so I donít have to go on about how good he is at illustrating matters of faerie.