All the faerie young ladies
A short story collection ideal for readers hungry for fairy tales for grown-ups.
Do you believe in fairies? Or rather, how did you respond to that question when Peter Pan was trying to save Tinker Bell?
If you clapped till your palms were sore when you were 5, but felt rather as if the question was violating your privacy later in life (clapping out of politeness or so that your younger sibling wouldn't think you were trying to off Ms. Bell), I believe I may have a book for you.
(If you instead sat on your hands, then no fantasy, no matter how dryly witty and erudite, is likely to appear on your bookshelf. Please go and read "The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire" – unabridged – and leave the rest of us to our fairy tales.)
There's not a hint of preciousness in the eight stories that make up Susanna Clarke's fantasy story collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu – in fact, the Los Angeles Times dubbed the book "fairy tales for cynics."
"Tom Brightwind – loud, egotistical, and six feet tall – was most emphatically not the sort of fairy that Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dodgson hoped to find at the bottom of their gardens," writes Professor James Sutherland of the University of Aberdeen, the "scholar" who ostensibly put together the collection.
As fans of her brilliantly inventive 2004 novel, "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell," already know, Clarke has envisioned an alternate Georgian England in which the study of magic (which reached its heights during the Renaissance) had dwindled until it become strictly theoretical – until two men, the pedantic Gilbert Norrell and his protégé Jonathan Strange, made the study practical once again.
And as readers also know, one of the chief delights of that novel was the elaborate footnotes, written in a mock-scholarly style. Thanks to "Professor Sutherland," there's plenty of deadpan erudition in "The Ladies of Grace Adieu."
The collection works as a lovely companion piece to the novel. All but one of the eight stories have been previously published. Here, they have been packaged together with illustrations by Charles Vess, an artist whose lovely style is reminiscent of the great Arthur Rackham, harking back to the early 20th-century golden age of children's book illustrations.
Jonathan Strange himself puts in an appearance in the title story, as he faces off against three country witches who aren't at all impressed by his fame or his acquaintance with the Duke of Wellington.
That military hero pays a brief visit to the land of Faerie in "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse," the more successful of the two stories that show that even the genteel pursuit of embroidery has its dark side.
It also, as Professor Sutherland points out in his foreword, demonstrates "the appalling unpreparedness of the average nineteenth-century gentleman when he accidentally stumbled into Faerie."
My favorite tale was "Mr. Simonelli or the Fairy Widower," in which the titular curate ("a monstrously irritating writer," Sutherland says, sniffing), who thought he was Italian but is in fact part fairy, tries to protect the ladies of his new village from the depredations of his fairy kinsman, John Hollyshoes.
Also delightful was "Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thorseby," in which an isolated village finally gets a bridge to the outside world. Because it was commissioned by a fairy, it leads to Italy and not to the other side of the river.
But for a fairy gift, that's a pretty innocuous twist. The story also comes equipped with footnotes and another foreword by Sutherland, giving Clarke ample opportunity to display wit as dry as stale biscotti.
"Considered as literature, it is deeply unremarkable," Sutherland notes of the tale. "It suffers from all the usual defects of second-rate early-nineteenth-century writing."
Readers will notice plenty of echoes of 19th-century authors, such as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, as well as the occasional antiquated spelling ("scizzars") and historical figure, such as the Duke of Wellington; Mary, Queen of Scots; and writer John Aubrey, who is among the scholars visiting the wife of a 17th-century landowner, in "Lickerish Hill," a retelling of "Rumplestiltskin."
"Mr. Meldreth, a sweet, shy gentleman the colour of dust, is for Insects and haz 237 dead ones in a box.... Dr. Foxton has shewn by Irrefutable Arguments that Cornishmen are a kind of Fishe."
In that story and "Mrs. Mabb," in which a young woman tries to wrest back her fiancé from a fairy, women seem to fare better than men in dealing with fairy-kind. A peasant also does rather well, persuading the saints to help him best the Raven King, the central legendary figure in "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell."
While "Ladies of Grace Adieu" might inspire new readers to buckle down, do those push-ups, and pick up the 782-page "Jonathan Strange," its more likely audience is those who have already finished that novel and are experiencing such withdrawal that they are perusing scientific texts about sea cucumbers, searching for footnotes.
To them, my advice is simple: Read slowly. Her new novel isn't supposed to be out until late next year.
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.