Twenty Novels, Twenty Opening Chapters: Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 13.266% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Today’s attempt to analyze what makes for a compelling opening chapter is one of a handful of books where, if it had never ended, I would have been entirely happy.  Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a quasi-Victorian book about two stodgy magicians making it in a quasi-alternate history England, and it’s a gloriously messy little tome.  It’s filled with eddies and asides and strangenesses, and I was so entranced by the tone and the imagination that I was actually disappointed when the end of the book hove into view. I recognized the plot had to ratchet things to a conclusion, but why?  I was having a good time.
So how did this grand adventure start?
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Suzanna Clarke (Feel free to download the sample to your Kindle, if you’d like to play along.)
Opening Paragraph: “Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians.  They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.”
When Do We Find Out What Motivates Our Protagonist? Now here’s the thing – because this is told in third-person omniscent perspective, it’s unclear by the end of fifth page who our protagonist is.  Third-person omniscient is infamous for head-hopping among people, flitting in to someone’s thought process to give us a glimpse into their head, and then going off on a tangent.
But what a tangent!  Here’s the second paragraph:
“They were gentleman-magicians, which is to say they had never harmed any one by magic – or done any one the slightest good. In fact, to own the truth, not one of these magicians had ever cast the smallest spell, nor by any magic caused one leaf to tremble upon a tree, made one mote of dust to alter its course or changed a single hair upon one’s head.  But, with this one minor reservation, they enjoyed a reputation as some of the wisest and most magical gentlemen in Yorkshire.”
Now, that’s worldbuilding.  By the end of the second paragraph, you have been shown – and not told – what kind of a profession magic is in this world.  What’s being characterized here is not a protagonist, but rather a group of people – the magicians of York – and already you get the sense that they’re addled professors, a little bloated on their own digressions, and yet esteemed for reasons that seem mysterious.  And the tone is completely straight-faced, as the addition of “With this one minor reservation,” there’s the author saying, “Yes, I know, but this is how people thought.”  Brilliance.
But the question that drives the chapter appears at the end of paragraph four, when a new member called John Segundus addresses the society with a question: “In short, he wished to know why there was no more magic done in England.”
And we’re off.  The reason I started this series is because I theorized that in most books, by the third paragraph, you know the protagonist’s motivation and why they’re doing things.  In a third-person omniscient book, you have no protagonist to track closely, so instead Clarke raises the very question the reader is likely to want to know – and we’re hooked.   We don’t know who we’re following, but we know this chapter is going to answer the question it raised – or at least the book might, in time.
What Happens In The First Chapter? Mr. Segundus raises this question to the Society, who proceed to debate the necessity of doing magic.  Segundus and his new ally Honeyfoot set out to talk to the one magician in York who did not join the society – Mr. Norrell.  Mr. Norrell, however, is seclusive, secretive, and cold.  And, of course, Mr. Norrell states that he can do actual magic.
Susanna Clarke has a fascinating way of writing, because what she writes is not about plot, but rather about tone and surprise.  Honeyfoot and Segundus are clearly buffoons – but Clarke squeezes a lot of reader interest by never stating this.  She’s got an amazing trick of having someone say (or do!) something that is, to them, quite natural, but clearly marks it via subtle textual methods that no, really, this behavior is sort of silly.
In short, she’s her own straight man.  And that provides a lot of interest to pull us through a quiet chapter, because we’re actually reading two stories with every paragraph: what the person thinks they’re doing, and parsing out what’s actually happening.  Each of the magicians is quite sure of themselves, positive their thoughts will be received with eager interest, and presented as such – but Clarke leads you up to it by having their stated thoughts be just a tad desperate.  Tricks like this paragraph, after they’ve been told that there’s a prophecy that two men will bring magic back to England:

“You were entirely right – prophecies are great nonsense,” said Mr. Honeyfoot, laughing.  And then, as if struck by a thought, he said, “We are two magicians. Honeyfoot and Segundus,” he said trying it out, as if thinking how it would look in the newspapers and history books, “Honeyfoot and Secgundus – it sounds very well.”

It’s all terribly subtle work, because Clarke hardly ever has anyone notice their foolishness – she just places two contradictory thoughts a little too close together, as she does here, so that you can’t fail to notice it.  Or she has Honeyfoot say that he’s happy in the belief that he had pleased Mr. Norrell as much by requesting to see his library as he had himself.
And yet there is a seriousness here.  Clarke is lampooning these people, but she is also allowing them their dignity, such as it is; she never denigrates their abilities, she merely points one slender finger towards their weak spots and lets you draw in the details.  As such, what could turn into a Terry Pratchett-style sarcasm actually becomes a lovely chapter that oozes with a proper tone.  The narrator is too polite to say things, you come to realize, and so you must furnish your own details.  And it turn, that politeness becomes a sort of character in and of itself, where you come to realize that you must pay attention for there will be things that go carefully unsaid.
And so you do.
What you wind up with is a chapter that could, in a different book, be handled in eight pages.  But the reason I was sad Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was ending is because unlike many books, the interest is not propelled by the plot.  Even in this chapter, there are swirls of diversions – do we need to have four paragraphs on the exact debate among the York Society of Magicians?  Or summaries of the books in Mr. Norrell’s fantastic library?  But Clarke makes them interesting digressions, by suggesting that their worth is of merit that you must judge for yourself, and so you get drawn into them.
One suspects you could pick up almost any chapter in the book and find something of interest.  That is the strength of third-person omniscience: you can wander over to any damned subject you please, so long as you make it compelling.  And the stylistic choice Clarke makes to dryly shift your attention to this bit before stepping away with a polite cough to let you form your own opinions makes for a very intriguing beginning.
Past analyses:

1 Comment

  1. BenjaminJB
    Mar 3, 2014

    It’s curious to me that the style you isolate here–the polite irony of never stating the distance between thought and reality while always gesturing toward that distance–is, more-or-less, the genre play of the book: alternate history* thrives on the distance between real history and the alterations.
    But whereas many alternate histories include a super-historical character who kind of sees the distance (e.g., Wyndam-Matson’s mistress in Man in the High Castle who talks about what life would be like if FDR hadn’t been assassinated), Clarke’s book doesn’t dwell on that distance. Or maybe it does–it’s been a long time since I’ve read it.
    *Or maybe secret history.

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