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Classic review: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

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When they get word that their reclusive neighbor Mr. Norrell claims to be a "practicing" magician, they take offense - or assume he's mad. But Norrell makes a bargain with them, promising to demonstrate his skill if they'll agree to give up studying magic forever.

This, it turns out, is a telling proposal. He's a proud, jealous man, animated by contradictory desires. "Within Mr. Norrell's dry little heart there was," Clarke writes, "an ambition to bring back magic to England." And yet, at every step, he designs ways to control it, restrict access to it, and keep himself its sole practitioner. He buys up every magic book in England, hoarding them in his vast libraries. He publishes a magazine that discredits anyone else who claims to practice magic, and he insists on rewriting English history to repress any record of the Raven King.

Mr. Norrell is a wonderfully odd character in what's practically an encyclopedia of wonderfully odd characters. He's ominous and imperious, and yet helpless and fretful. After agonizing over the prospect of leaving his scholar's haunt and its blessed privacy, he moves to London to promote the cause, but he's so chronically boring and socially inept that "London found him disappointing," Clarke writes. "He did no magic, cursed no one, foretold nothing."

Finally, desperate to attract attention, he employs the services of two insufferable dandies who decorate his house and engineer his social engagements with a kind of gaudy flourish entirely at odds with his personality. It's a 19th-century version of "Queer Eye for the Magical Guy."

His reputation improves further when he agrees to take on a student, a precocious young man named Jonathan Strange, whose scholarly passion is combined with the winning social graces that Mr. Norrell can never manage. "Strange was everyone's idea of what a magician ought to be," Clarke writes. "He was tall; he was charming; he had a most ironical smile."

Theirs is a peculiar partnership: Strange respects his mentor enormously, but finds him tedious and annoying. Norrell, meanwhile, is thrilled to have such a talented student, but hides books from him and remains paranoid about creating a rival. There's a typically comic moment in which Norrell clings to a volume he's just recommended to Strange, refusing to let go even as he hands it to him.

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