Read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Online

Authors: Susanna Clarke

Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Historical, #Literary, #Media Tie-In, #General

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (4 page)

6. The first passage which Mr Segundus read concerned England, Faerie (which magicians sometimes call "the Other Lands") and a strange country that is reputed to lie on the far side of Hell. Mr Segundus had heard something of the symbolic and magical bond which links these three lands, yet never had he read so clear an explanation of it as was put forward here.

The second extract concerned one of England's greatest magicians, Martin Pale. In Gregory Absalom's
The Tree of Learning
there is a famous passage which relates how, while journeying through Faerie, the last of the great
magicians, Martin Pale, paid a visit to a fairy-prince. Like most of his race the fairy had a great multitude of names, honorifics, titles and pseudonyms; but usually he was known as Cold Henry. Cold Henry made a long and deferential speech to his guest. The speech was full of metaphors and obscure allusions, but what Cold Henry seemed to be saying was that fairies were naturally wicked creatures who did not always know when they were going wrong. To this Martin Pale briefly and somewhat enigmatically replied that not all Englishmen have the same size feet.

For several centuries no one had the faintest idea what any of this might mean, though several theories were advanced — and John Segundus was familiar with all of them. The most popular was that developed by William Pantler in the early eighteenth century. Pantler said that Cold Henry and Pale were speaking of theology. Fairies (as everybody knows) are beyond the reach of the Church; no Christ has come to them, nor ever will — and what is to become of them on Judgement Day no one knows. According to Pantler Cold Henry meant to enquire of Pale if there was any hope that fairies, like men, might receive Eternal Salvation. Pale's reply — that Englishmen's feet are different sizes — was his way of saying that not all Englishmen will be saved. Based on this Pantler goes on to attribute to Pale a rather odd belief that Heaven is large enough to hold only a finite number of the Blessed; for every Englishmen who is damned, a place opens up in Heaven for a fairy. Pantler's reputation as a theoretical magician rests entirely on the book he wrote on the subject

In Jacques Belasis's
Mr Segundus read a very different explanation. Three centuries before Martin Pale set foot in Cold Henry's castle Cold Henry had had another human visitor, an English magician even greater than Pale — Ralph Stokesey — who had left behind him a pair of boots. The boots, said Belasis, were old, which is probably why Stokesey did not take them with him, but their presence in the castle caused great consternation to all its fairy-inhabitants who held English magicians in great veneration. In particular Cold Henry was in a pickle because he feared that in some devious, incomprehensible way, Christian morality might hold him responsible for the loss of the boots. So he was trying to rid himself of the terrible objects by passing them on to Pale who did not want them.

The Old Starre Inn

January–February 1807

S THE CARRIAGE passed out of Mr Norrell's sweep-gate Mr Honeyfoot exclaimed; "A practical magician in England! And in Yorkshire too! We have had the most extraordinary good luck! Ah, Mr Segundus, we have you to thank for this. You were awake, when the rest of us had fallen asleep. Had it not been for your encouragement, we might never have discovered Mr Norrell. And I am quite certain that he would never have sought us out; he is a little reserved. He gave us no particulars of his achievements in practical magic, nothing beyond the simple fact of his success. That, I fancy, is the sign of a modest nature. Mr Segundus, I think you will agree that our task is clear. It falls to us, sir, to overcome Norrell's natural timidity and aversion to praise, and lead him triumphantly before a wider public!"

"Perhaps," said Mr Segundus doubtfully.

"I do not say it will be easy," said Mr Honeyfoot. "He is a little reticent and not fond of company. But he must see that such knowledge as he possesses must be shared with others for the Nation's good. He is a gentleman: he knows his duty and will do it, I am sure. Ah, Mr Segundus! You deserve the grateful thanks of every magician in the country for this."

But whatever Mr Segundus deserved, the sad fact is that magicians in England are a peculiarly ungrateful set of men. Mr Honeyfoot and Mr Segundus might well have made the most significant discovery in magical scholarship for three centuries — what of it? There was scarcely a member of the York society who, when he learnt of it, was not entirely confident that he could have done it much better — and, upon the following Tuesday when an extraordinary meeting of the Learned Society of York Magicians was held, there were very few members who were not prepared to say so.

At seven o'clock upon the Tuesday evening the upper room of the Old Starre Inn in Stonegate was crowded. The news which Mr Honeyfoot and Mr Segundus had brought seemed to have drawn out all the gentlemen in the city who had ever peeped into a book of magic — and York was still, after its own fashion, one of the most magical cities in England; perhaps only the King's city of New- castle could boast more magicians.

There was such a crush of magicians in the room that, for the present, a great many were obliged to stand, though the waiters were continually bringing more chairs up the stairs. Dr Foxcastle had got himself an excellent chair, tall and black and curiously carved — and this chair (which rather resembled a throne), and the sweep of the red velvet curtains behind him and the way in which he sat with his hands clasped over his large round stomach, all combined to give him a deeply magisterial air.

The servants at the Old Starre Inn had prepared an excellent fire to keep off the chills of a January evening and around it were seated some ancient magicians — apparently from the reign of George II or thereabouts — all wrapped in plaid shawls, with yellowing spider's- web faces, and accompanied by equally ancient footmen with bottles of medicine in their pockets. Mr Honeyfoot greeted them with: "How do you do, Mr Aptree? How do you do, Mr Greyshippe? I hope you are in good health,Mr Tunstall? I am very glad to see you here, gentlemen! I hope you have all come to rejoice with us? All our years in the dusty wilderness are at an end. Ah! no one knows better than you, Mr Aptree and you,Mr Greyshippe what years they have been, for you have lived through a great many of them. But now we shall see magic once more Britain's counsellor and protector! And the French,Mr Tunstall! What will be the feelings of the French when they hear about it? Why! I should not be surprized if it were to bring on an immediate surrender."

Mr Honeyfoot had a great deal more to say of the same sort; he had prepared a speech in which he intended to lay before them all the wonderful advantages that were to accrue to Britain from this discovery. But he was never allowed to deliver more than a few sentences of it, for it seemed that each and every gentleman in the room was bursting with opinions of his own on the subject, all of which required to be communicated urgently to every other gentleman. Dr Foxcastle was the first to interrupt Mr Honeyfoot. From his large, black throne he addressed Mr Honeyfoot thus: "I am very sorry to see you, sir, bringing magic — for which I know you have a genuine regard — into disrepute with impossible tales and wild inventions. Mr Segundus," he said, turning to the gentleman whom he regarded as the source of all the trouble, "I do not know what is customary where you come from, but in Yorkshire we do not care for men who build their reputations at the expence of other men's peace of mind."

This was as far as Dr Foxcastle got before he was drowned by the loud, angry exclamations of Mr Honeyfoot and Mr Segundus's supporters. The next gentleman to make himself heard wondered that Mr Segundus and Mr Honeyfoot should have been so taken in. Clearly Norrell was mad — no different from any stark-eyed madman who stood upon the street corner screaming out that he was the Raven King.

A sandy-haired gentleman in a state of great excitement thought that Mr Honeyfoot and Mr Segundus should have insisted on Mr Norrell leaving his house upon the instant and coming straightway in an open carriage (though it was January) in triumph to York, so that the sandy-haired gentleman might strew ivy leaves in his path;
and one of the very old men by the fire was in a great passion about something or other, but being so old his voice was rather weak and no one had leisure just then to discover what he was saying.

There was a tall, sensible man in the room called Thorpe, a gentleman with very little magical learning, but a degree of common sense rare in a magician. He had always thought that Mr Segundus deserved encouragement in his quest to find where practical English magic had disappeared to — though like everyone else Mr Thorpe had not expected Mr Segundus to discover the answer quite so soon. But now that they had an answer Mr Thorpe was of the opinion that they should not simply dismiss it: "Gentlemen, Mr Norrell has said he can do magic. Very well. We know a little of Norrell — we have all heard of the rare texts he is supposed to have and for this reason alone we would be wrong to dismiss his claims without careful consideration. But the stronger arguments in Norrell's favour are these: that two of our own number — sober scholars both — have seen Norrell and come away convinced." He turned to Mr Honeyfoot. "You believe in this man — any one may see by your face that you do. You have seen something that convinced you — will you not tell us what it was?"

Now Mr Honeyfoot's reaction to this question was perhaps a little strange. At first he smiled gratefully at Mr Thorpe as if this was exactly what he could have wished for: a chance to broadcast the excellent reasons he had for believing that Mr Norrell could do magic; and he opened his mouth to begin. Then he stopped; he paused; he looked about him, as if those excellent reasons which had seemed so substantial a moment ago were all turning to mist and nothingness in his mouth, and his tongue and teeth could not catch hold of even one of them to frame it into a rational English sentence. He muttered something of Mr Norrell's honest countenance.

The York society did not think this very satisfactory (and had they actually been privileged to see Mr Norrell's countenance they might have thought it even less so). So Thorpe turned to Mr Segundus and said, "Mr Segundus, you have seen Norrell too. What is your opinion?"

For the first time the York society noticed how pale Mr Segundus was and it occurred to some of the gentlemen that he had not answered them when they had greeted him, as if he could not quite collect his thoughts to reply. "Are you unwell, sir?" asked Mr Thorpe gently. "No, no," murmured Mr Segundus, "it is nothing. I thank you." But he looked so lost that one gentleman offered him his chair and another went off to fetch a glass of Canary-wine, and the excitable sandy-haired gentleman who had wished to strew ivy leaves in Mr Norrell's path nurtured a secret hope that Mr Segundus might be enchanted and that they might see something extraordinary!

Mr Segundus sighed and said, "I thank you. I am not ill, but this last week I have felt very heavy and stupid. Mrs Pleasance has given me arrowroot and hot concoctions of liquorice root, but they have not helped — which does not surprize me for I think the confusion is in my head. I am not so bad as I was. If you were to ask me now, gentlemen, why it is that I believe that magic has come back to England, I should say it is because I have seen magic done. The impression of having seen magic done is most vivid here and here . . ." (Mr Segundus touched his brow and his heart.) "And yet I know that I have seen none. Norrell did none while we were with him. And so I suppose that I have dreamt it."

Fresh outbreak of the gentlemen of the York society. The faint gentleman smiled faintly and inquired if any one could make any thing of this. Then Mr Thorpe cried, "Good God! It is very nonsensical for us all to sit here and assert that Norrell can or cannot do this or can or cannot do that. We are all rational beings I think, and the answer, surely, is quite simple — we will ask him to do some magic for us in proof of his claims."

This was such good sense that for a moment the magicians were silent — though this is not to say that the proposal was universally popular — not at all. Several of the magicians (Dr Foxcastle was one) did not care for it. If they asked Norrell to do magic, there was always the danger that he might indeed do some. They did not want to see magic done; they only wished to read about it in books. Others were of the opinion that the York society was making itself very ridiculous by doing even so little as this. But in the end most of the magicians agreed with Mr Thorpe that: "As scholars, gentlemen, the least we can do is to offer Mr Norrell the opportunity to convince us." And so it was decided that someone should write another letter to Mr Norrell.

It was quite clear to all the magicians that Mr Honeyfoot and Mr Segundus had handled the thing very ill and upon one subject at least — that of Mr Norrell's wonderful library — they did seem remarkably stupid, for they were not able to give any intelligible report of it. What had they seen? Oh, books, many books. A remarkable number of books? Yes, they believed they had thought it remarkable at the time. Rare books? Ah, probably. Had they been permitted to take them down and look inside them? Oh no! Mr Norrell had not gone so far as to invite them to do that. But they had read the titles? Yes, indeed. Well then, what were the titles of the books they had seen? They did not know; they could not remember. Mr Segundus said that one of the books had a title that began with a `B', but that was the beginning and end of his information. It was very odd.

Mr Thorpe had always intended to write the letter to Mr Norrell himself, but there were a great many magicians in the room whose chief idea was to give offence to Mr Norrell in return for his impudence and these gentlemen thought quite rightly that their best means of insulting Norrell was to allow Dr Foxcastle to write the letter. And so this was carried. In due time it brought forth an angry letter of reply.

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