The moment I finished Susanna Clarke’s wonderful first novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, I wished that there was more of it. It was a long wait, but finally the fans of Clarke’s magically-soaked nineteenth-century Britain have a sequel — of sorts. Clarke presents eight short stories concerned with the presence of Faerie in England, and its influence on human inhabitants, all set in the same universe (with the same magical structure) as her previous work. However, it’s more of a companion piece than a sequel, considering it does not continue the story told in her novel, but expands on several of its ideas and subplots.
This is particularly the case in the title story, “The Ladies of Grace Adieu,” in which we find out why Jonathan Strange was so eager to remove his brother-in-law from the province of Gloucestershire (as mentioned in footnote 2, chapter 43 of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell). The ladies in question are Mrs Field and her step-niece Miss Cassandra Parbringer, who are close friends with Miss Tobias, a young governess who is the warden of two young heiresses in a wealthy estate. When the women are confronted by both a gold-digging young captain and a suspicious Jonathan Strange, they take matters into their own hands — calling up their own magical arts.
It is a mysterious, charming and beautifully written story, capturing what her fans love best about Clarke’s work: her delicate prose, her sense of humour, her grasp of the darker side of Faerie, and her refusal to tell the reader everything. Instead, we are given precisely what we need to make sense of the story, whilst many of the details are left mysteriously obscure. It is also the story that is most dependent on a reader’s prior familiarity with Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and though it is not essential that the masterwork be read first, it’s certainly recommended.
“On Lickerish Hill” is an intriguing retelling of the Rumplestiltskin story, told in first-person narrative by a young wife who secures the help of a faerie-creature in completing the demands set to her by her husband. But can she pay the price demanded of her? Its most memorable feature is its use of Suffolk dialect to tell the tale. Here’s an example of the prose used in the opening sentence:
When I waz a child I lived at Dr Quince’s on the other side of Lickerish Hill. Sometimes in a winters-twilight I have look’t out of Dr Quince’s windowe and seen Lickerish Hill (where the Pharisees live) like a long brown shippe upon a grey sea and I have seen far-awaie lights like silver stares among the dark trees.
The third story again pits a young woman against the tricky and selfish nature of Faerie, in the bittersweet and sometimes disturbing “Mrs Mabb.” This time, a young woman called Venetia Moore is on the hunt for her lost love after the elusive Mrs Mabb steals him away. Hearing different accounts of her rival wherever she goes, Venetia goes on the hunt for the house in which she believes her sweetheart is being held prisoner, whilst her family worries for her personal sanity. With some creepy examples of memory-loss and the world bending into Faerie before one’s eyes, Susanna Clarke certainly presents a feisty and brave young heroine, one prepared to brave the perils of a powerful faerie to win her beloved back.
“The Duke of Wellington Misplaces his Horse” is a story of particular interest to anyone who has read Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, a story set in a village called Wall that was situated (aptly enough) near the wall that separates our world from Faerie. In this mostly-humorous tale, the Duke of Wellington chases his horse Copenhagen into Faerie where he happens upon a cottage. Inside is a young woman, embroidering a rather remarkable tapestry…
The next two stories are the longest ones to be found in the collection, and consequently my favourites, since Clarke has plenty of time and space to develop certain aspects of the story. “Mr Simonelli or The Fairy Widower” is told in journal-form by Mr Simonelli himself, who has been tricked by a rival-colleague of Corpus Christi College to accept an unsuitable position as clergyman in the country. He has not long arrived when he finds himself introduced to the enigmatic John Hollyshoes, a hitherto unknown relation to Simonelli. Finally understanding where his foreign appearance comes from, Simonelli sets himself against his fairy cousin, matching his fairy wits against his cousin’s in order to secure the safety of his newfound community.
“Tom Brightwind: How the Fairy Bridge was Built at Thoresby” chronicles one of the adventures of the fairy-prince Tom and his unlikely friend David Montefiore, a Jewish physician. When David is called away to a patient, Tom tags along and the two are sidetracked at the village of Thoresby, which is in desperate need of a bridge. Tom takes up the challenge, promising to build the bridge in one night (whilst paying a visit to the magistrate’s barren wife). It is a wonderful story about the personality of faeries and their relationship with both other faeries and human beings. Furthermore, it once more makes use of Susanna Clarke’s famous footnotes, which are tidbits of knowledge scattered throughout Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and always fun to divulge in.
“Antickes and Frets” explores the life of Mary Queen of Scots after her imprisonment and her dangerous game of cat and mouse with both Queen Elizabeth and the new mistress of her jail-house, Countess Shrewsbury. Although it’s an interesting magical spin on the monarch’s life, it has little to do with Faerie itself, save in the character of the Countess. Presumably she’s a witch or sorceress of some kind, but in this case Clarke’s decision to leave certain aspects of the tale untold is more frustrating than aptly enigmatic.
Finally, Clarke uses the core concept from her previous novel as the center of the last story: John Uskglass, also known as the Raven King. “John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner” pits the king of all magicians, the mortal child who was raised by fairies, the most powerful medium between earth and Faerie against a simple charcoal burner who calls upon various saints to seek revenge against the perceived slights done upon him by John Uskglass. It’s not the strongest story in the collection, and sadly the enigmatic and powerful Raven King is (being the butt of the joke in this particular story) is sold a little short, and not at all the character as he appeared in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.
What makes Clarke’s stories (and novel) so appealing is her attention to scholarly detail. For example, all of the short stories are preceded by an introduction by (the fictional) Professor James Sutherland, Director of Sidhe Studies at the University of Aberdeen, who has organized this collection for our benefit, in the hopes that it will shed further light on the relationship between Faerie and humanity in this period. He mentions the work of other scholars in his field, the disagreements that arise in interpreting certain fairy lore, and the possible discrepancy between reality and the stories told (according to him, Mr Simonelli’s journals should be read with a pinch of salt, considering that Simonelli abridged them several times). All of the work is given context in either history or folklore, and is often footnoted, which of course gives it a realistic depth that makes you feel as though the world of faerie really is being studied! Clarke doesn’t just present Faerie, but the imaginary research that goes on by scholars into Faerie, and it makes her stories even more enjoyable to read.
Clarke doesn’t just write fantasy, as her character portraits are vivid and sympathetic (though obviously not quite as in-depth in short stories), as are the human relations found throughout the stories. Friends, parents, sisters, rivals, family members — all these relationship are wonderfully captured throughout, between both human and faerie individuals. She’s also quite a humorous author, and is obviously a fan of Jane Austen’s precise, delicate prose. Clarke perfectly captures the form and feel of an Austen novel, and the manners and decorum of a Jane Austen novel is perfectly balanced against the wildness and danger of Faerie.
This collection is a wonderful companion piece to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and once again whets my appetite for even more stories from this talented author. Definitely recommended, even to those who don’t usually read fantasy.
Rebecca has written an excellent review of The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories and I am completely in agreement with her review. I’d just like to make a few points about why I love Susanna Clarke‘s writing, and I’ll mention the audiobook:
- The Duke of Wellington Misplaces his Horse” was a particularly delightful piece not only because it was so whimsical, but mainly because the main character is a real historical figure. One of the aspects of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell that I particularly enjoyed was Susanna Clarke’s use of several historical events and people. She gives them personalities that are completely believable. Imagining The Duke of Wellington in this particular magical situation was highly entertaining.
- In addition to mentioning true history and geography, Ms Clarke’s use of footnotes, introductions by the “editor,” and fictional references to other works and theories about faerie give her world detail, background, and richness similar to Tolkien’s Middle Earth. I read a lot of scholarly research, so I’m not easy to fool, but I certainly felt like I was reading someone’s dissertation. An entertaining dissertation.
- I particularly appreciate Susanna Clarke’s use of
dry humor (the English do that so well, don’t they?). If you’re into Xanth, Ronan, Discworld, or The Belgariad, it may not be your thing, but to me, it’s hilarious.
I listened to The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories on audiobook. I guess Susanna Clarke ranks high with her publisher because this book is read by two of the best readers in all of audiobook-dom: Simon Prebble and Davina Porter. Simon Prebble is up there with Simon Vance (who read Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander series) and comedian Lenny Henry (who read Neil Gaiman‘s Anansi Boys). Davina Porter reads Marion Zimmer Bradley and Diana Gabaldon (and a lot of historical fiction) and I can’t think of any female reader who’s better than Davina Porter — I could listen to her read accounting textbooks and be entertained for hours as long as she read each chapter in a different voice (and I bet she could). She’s particularly good at Cockney.
We have only two major works by Susanna Clarke so far, but in my opinion, there is no better writer in all of fantasy fiction. For that matter, her prose is on level with those authors who we recognize as the greatest in all of literature. I hope there is much more coming from Susanna Clarke!