This review is my shout out to BellaUK, who encouraged me to review the BBC broadcast of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. She says it’s an excellent show and I did love the books, so I told her I’d give it my best.
(Check out her blog at:
The first episode is pure setup. We have a meeting of the English Society of Magic, that practices no magic. (Imagine Willow Rosenberg from Buffy, calling these stuffy, arrogant, sanctimonious drips, a “bunch of Wanna-Blessed-Bees.”)
We meet Mr. Segundus, who asks the very pertinent question of why magic is no longer practiced on English soil. He is then introduced to Mr. Norrell by Mr. Honeyfoot. Mr. Norrell claims he can do magic and tells the Society that he will do a magic act for them at a nearby church, In Yorkshire, but in return, they must all renounce the study magic. Mr. Segundus is the only one who refuses this agreement because he is already a believer in Mr. Norrell.
There follows one of the most wondrous, and frankly, kinda terrifying scenes from the book. Mr. Norrell makes all of the statues in an old church come to life. They begin arguing with each other about mundane things, playing music and fussing at the witnesses. It’s one of my most vivid images I have from the book and the show does it justice. I just sat there grinning as if I’d just smoked a bag of the really good stuff.
After this display of power, which thoroughly exhausts him, Mr. Norrell is convinced by Honeyfoot, Segundus and his sinister looking Houseman, Childermass, to go to London and offer his services to the government. There he attends parties given by Mr. Drawlight, who promises to introduce him to the correct people, while using him to further his social status.
Rejected by the government, but egged on by Drawlight, Mr. Norrell is encouraged to perform other magical acts. One of them, to awaken a young lady being kept in a mysterious coma, he successfully performs, with the help of The Gentleman.
This is Gilbert Norrell, a wealthy magician and hoarder of magical secrets. He wants to be the only worker of magic in England. Because of the prophecies provided by Vinculus, he decides to set himself up as a friend and rival to Mr. Strange.
Jonathan Strange: a wealthy wastrel who, after the death of his abusive father, tells his fiance, that he has decided to practice magic and discovers that he has a natural affinity during his first magical act, when he sees the face of Mr. Norrell. He too, is given a Prophecy of The Raven King, and some magical pamphlets by Vinculus.
The Gentleman: Makes a deal with Mr. Norrell to raise a young woman from a magical coma in exchange for half her lifespan. I think he’s some kind of Elf.
Lady Pole: the young woman who was in a mysterious coma, resurrected by Mr. Norrell as a sign that magic had been returned to England.
John Childermass: is the sinister Majordomo of Mr. Norrell. I’m not sure what it is he’s trying to accomplish yet, but it just seems like it might be bad because he just looks disreputable.
Vinculus: a mysterious, homeless, street performer, who prophecies the magical rivalry of Strange and Norrell, which is the harbinger of the return, to England, of magic and the Raven King. The King was considered to be the greatest practitioner of English magic that ever lived.
Mr. Segundus: He is a firm believer in English magic and a supporter of Mr. Norrell’s efforts to help The English defeat Napoleon, using magic.
Drawlight: Is a wealthy opportunist, taking advantage of Mr. Norrell’s lack of English society connections, to set himself up as a middle-man between Norrell and everyone else.
Mr. Honeyfoot: Is a friend of Mr. Segundus and is interested in magic.
In the interests of full disclosure, I must point out that I have indeed read the book, with all its footnotes (which I found to be the most interesting parts at times.) It topped my favorite book list for 2003.
The book is very information dense, has a tendency to wander in search of a plot and moves rather slowly, but I believe that was more than made up for by a writing style that I found very compelling. Its a challenging book, that is not to everyone’s speed, or tastes. If you prefer your Fantasy a little more action packed, with fewer footnotes, this may not be the book for you.
But the show is a little more on point. It might be more accessible for people who find the book boring. It moves a lot more swiftly, many of the books elements are streamlined, with a lot less exposition. Despite that, all the main characters and plot threads are introduced and the creators of the show have done a very good job of distilling the dialogue down to the essentials.
Basically, I’m saying its not as good as the book. But the book was several kinds of awesome, so I expect the show to only be Great.
Next Week’s episode is titled How Is Lady Pole? And I’ll discuss things a little more in depth about what I like and dislike about the show.