Magic in the British Isles

Book cover
The Ladies of Grace Adieuby Susanna Clarke Illustrated by Charles Vess

Bloomsbury. 235p $23.95

E. M. Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel (1927) that fantasy asks us to pay something extra, that is, first, to accept the fantasist’s impossible story as a whole and, second, to accept the specific beings (say, fairies) and events (say, miracles) that are in it. Those who can do this, however, open themselves up to an enchantment that realistic fiction cannot providewhat Forster, referring to Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson (1911), calls a beauty unattainable by serious literature...iridescent yet so profound.

Though not as rich and beautiful as Susanna Clarke’s first book, the award-winning novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004), The Ladies of Grace Adieu is still a worthwhile read. Set in 18th- and early 19th-century England, it is a collection of eight short stories of magic and the world of Faerienot as in Tinker Bell but more in the spirit of J. R. R. Tolkienthat is, both beautiful and terrible, a world dappled with the iridescence and profundity Forster praises.

In the title story, three ladies living in a village called Grace Adieu, in Gloucestershire, practice magic in murderous fashion to protect the orphans in the care of one of the ladies, Miss Tobias. The orphans’ only guardian, Captain Winbright, the cousin of the orphans’ mother, has returned from the wars and would like to arrange the deaths of the orphans in order to inherit their money.

Before the ladies use their magic to stop Captain Winbright, Jonathan Strange, who is the second most powerful magician in England (in Clarke’s fantasy version of England) after Mr. Norrell, and just happens to be visiting in the neighborhood, warns one of the ladies, Miss Parbringer, Magic, madam, is like wine and, if you are not used to it, it will make you drunk.

The next story, On Lickerish Hill, is a refashioning of the Rumpelstiltskin story told in an old English way with words spelled accordingly, which reminded me, in a less linguistically complicated way, of Riddley Walker and Clockwork Orange. In this case, the beauty of the style makes up for the somewhat derivative quality of the story. For example, the opening paragraph:


When I waz a child I lived at Dr Quince’s on the other side of Lickerish Hill. Sometimes in a winters-twilight I have look’t out of Dr Quince’s windowe and seen Lickerish Hill (where the Pharisees [fairies] live) like a long brown shippe upon a grey sea and I have seen far-awaie lights like silver starres among the dark trees.


Mrs Mabb, the third story, is a haunting tale about the thin line between madness and the world of Faerie. One is left not knowing whether the protagonist is mad or enchanted, or if the two are, perhaps, the same thing. The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse is a slight, charming story and has perhaps the most effective ending of all. Mr Simonelli and the Fairy Widower, told in the form of a journal, is the funniest in the collection and shows the eerier side of Faerie.

In the story Antickes and Frets, Clarke turns to real history; the protagonist is Mary, Queen of Scots, who tries to use magic embroidery to wrest the throne from her sister Elizabeth. The author employed this blending of the historical and fantasy in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell; it was, in my opinion, the novel’s major weakness. The introduction of historical figures can break the spell the fiction has placed on the reader. The same is true with Antickes, which for me is the least effective story in the collection.

The last story, John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner, is about the fictional king of Faerie and Northern England, John Uskglass, being humbled by a charcoal burner upon whose turf the king has trespassed and damaged three times. The charcoal burner goes to the local priest, who tells him which saint to appeal to and in which churches those saints are honored. With the aid of the three saints, the charcoal burner wins back what has been damaged, and an extra pig, from the king.

This story thus introduces a spiritual element missing from Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, an element that is, albeit fanciful, more powerful than the magic of Faerie. As Clarke writes: The rocks and earth of England loved John Uskglass well. They would always wish to help him if they could, but this powerwhatever it waswas something they respected even more.

Clarke’s acerbic wit, shown to great effect in her novel, is also evident in this line from Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby, wherein is described a lawyer, Pewley Witts, who has grown rich but too busy to meddle with his neighbors: The dull satisfaction of being rich himself was nothing to the vivid pleasure he had drawn from contemplating the misery and degradation of his friends and neighbors.

Susanna Clarke may appeal to readers who love the works of Jane Austen, because of her wit in describing the foibles of her characters, and to fans of the works of Tolkien, because of her beautiful descriptions of the world of Faerie. Her work stands high in the tradition of fantasy that Forster praised.

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