What if a world of mysticism and magic stood alongside Regency high society? Susanna Clarke’s break-out novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell — the BBC’s adaptation of which began in the U.K last night — asks just that. But as the first episode shows, even in a world with magic, the real power is in politics.
Warning: Although the series has begun in the U.K, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell won’t air in the U.S until June 13th on BBC America. As such, these recaps will be kept as light on spoilers as possible — but there will still be some minor spoilers ahead and in the comments.
With a title like “The Friends of English Magic”, you’ll be forgiven for expecting more actual magic to occur in the show’s first episode — especially with reviews declaring the series “Harry Potter for adults.” But Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell establishes a world that is very much about an absence of magic. Throughout the early proceedings, which follows the York Society of Magicians as they attempt to discover why magic use has lapsed in Britain for 300 years, the audience is introduced (and repeatedly reminded of) a world where the use of magic is as incomprehensible as it would be to us in the real world. Here, power isn’t earned through the spells you can cast, it’s earned through respect, power gained through societal standing. It’s telling that when the York Society is confronted with the news that Mr. Norrell (played to perfection by Eddie Marsan) is a practical magician, that they choose to test his claims through a contract that could see him publicly denounce himself — a far greater shame than being unable to perform magic. The politics of 19th Century society, your place in it and the power that is granted with stature and reputations hold far more sway in this world, even when Norrell astounds the society by making the stone sculptures of the York Minister come to life.
Following his small “victory” against the York Society, Norrell moves from the North to London to build on his magical reputation and aid in the ongoing Napoleonic War. However, he finds his magical prowess of little use. In fact, London’s high society has reduced his feat into a tale of magically washed linens before he’s even arrived, stripping Norrell of what little power he had before meeting with Sir Walter Pole about aiding the war effort. With his Yorkshire sensibility, Norrell finds himself baffled by how London works (another classic north/south divide trope ripe in 19th-century literature), with reputation trumping any actual ability.
He finds the name of practicing magicians sullied by vagabonds and street magicians, and through the gentle prodding of his supportive servant Childermass (rest assured, book fans, Enzo Cilenti’s portrayal of the fan favorite is spot on, down to an accent so Yorkshire I worry American audiences may not quite get everything he says at first) comes to realize that he cannot win over the either the government or the aristocrats that surround him with actual magical power; he has to play the game of politics, no matter how uncomfortable it makes him. The interplay between discovering the power of stature and the burgeoning revival of magic use sits at the heart of the first episode, weaving in and out of the world-building set up, and is a potent reminder that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is about a lot more than people in fancy wigs casting magic.
Although the show’s first episode excels in establishing its world, perhaps the show’s weakest aspect in the first hour is its pace. Certain changes have been made from the books for the sake of adaptation — although he doesn’t have much to do until near the very end, Strange himself (Bertie Carvel) is much more present throughout the episode ahead of his discovery of his magical talent, instead of residing primarily in the footnotes of the book’s first few chapters — but some of the changes are perhaps a necessity of adaptation.
Part of the joy of Clarke’s novel is its pastiche of classic 19th-century literary styles, the echoes of Austen and Dickens in the prose as it gently ribs the tropes of literature of the era, something that, understandably, you can’t appreciate in a visual medium. Instead, “The Friends of English Magic” relies on untold years of British period drama production to steep you in the atmosphere and place you in that familiar setting. Although at times it does feel like it borrows a bit of that pastiche tone (especially in the wonderful exaggeration of Vincent Franklin’s Drawlight, the aristocrat hanger-on who’s camp and pomp declarations almost border on full-on pantomime in an otherwise reserved cast) it doesn’t quite make up for the loss, instead feeling like it’s stretched a little too thin in terms of what is actually playing out on screen.
Also largely absent (and dearly missed) are Clarke’s footnotes, which extensively peppered the original book with the background of magic’s history in Britain, fleshing out the background of the world without bogging the reader down. It’s once again understandable that the footnotes are missing from a live-action adaptation — without excessive use of voiceover or with characters standing around needlessly expositing at each other they wouldn’t really work — but at the same time it makes it that much more difficult for the show to establish is quirky premise. If anything, certain aspects of Britain’s historical relationship are brushed over a little too much, certain elements left unanswered that confuse viewers rather than intentionally leave them wanting to know more.
But even though it’s not quite a perfect adaptation, there is still enough at play in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell to make you want to see more, whether you’ve read the book or otherwise. As the episode climaxes with Norrell’s first major proof that he is a powerful, practicing magician (and in doing so making a dangerous deal with the Fey world and Marc Warren’s mysterious “Gentleman” for the sake of gaining political favour with Walter Pole) the stage is finally set for Britain’s two greatest powers, politics and magic, to come together — and seeing how they do will certainly make for interesting viewing.