Monday, 3 August 2015

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: Arabella

"I merely asked questions. Surely that is the prerogative of any pupil?"

This is the episode where all turns dark. Strange, up till now both a member of the landed gentry and of the Establishment, hob-nobbing with cabinet ministers and the future Duke of Wellington, has his fall. He is widowed (sort of), disgraced (sort of), imprisoned and well on the way to madness. It is worth asking why Susanna Clarke punishes the character so. Simple narrative reasons? Hubris? Or are there deeper themes at work?

Strange's devastation at the loss of his wife is total. The current breast with his conventional brother-in-law- an old-fashioned country parson who still wears a wig in the late 1810s- is instructive. Strange, at first, seems to be the more together of the two but, while Henry goes through deep mourning and thus finds acceptance, Strange remains obsessed with the resurrection of his wife through magic, and this is his apparent undoing. There is much in this to support the theory that Strange represents the Romantic movement as opposed to the old-fashioned values of the Enlightenment, empiricist philosophy and high Whiggery which can be attributed to Norrell, at least superficially.

But is this too easy a conclusion? Yes, Strange has his archetypal fall, like Prometheus and any number of flawed tragic heroes. But he is an awkward fit with the tragic model, always retaining something of the manner of the unflappable fop, a sort of Sir Percy Blakeney of wizardry. I'll admit it's been almost a decade since I read Susanna Clarke's excellent novel, but both Peter Harness' script and Bertie Carvel's increasingly sublime performance seem to pointedly resist any suggestion of the conventional tragedy. There is also the fact that, as with Lady Pole, we are looking at a tragedy straight out of the darkness of pre-Grimm fairy tales. Perhaps the point is simply that life is capriciously harsh (making faeries a good metaphor) and we must be stoic. But we shal see how my views evolve.

Otherwise, the episode looks sublime, as always, courtesy of Toby Haynes. Bertie Caevel is extraordinary now he is suddenly given more demanding material, fully justifying his recent promotion to the A list of television actors. Both of the two female characters (Arabella and Lady Pole) in this very male world have now  been stripped of all agency by masculine design, quite literally. And we have a failed but very interesting attempt by Strange to reach agreement with Norrell which is stifled by the slimy Lascelles. Increasingly, it is Notrell's view of magic which holds sway in England and, increasingly, Strange is opposed to his Augustan Age reason and neatness. 

Oh, and there's a very interesting meeting between Strange and Childermass in which Norrell's manservant shows just how aware and able he is: potentially as great as either of the two magicians, he is hobbled by his social class. 

We end, though, with Strange at a seemingly low ebb, seeking faeries and madness. Once again this is a splendid piece of telly, written and shot to avoid the obvious readings and make the viewer think. Two episodes left...

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