JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL: “Arabella”

Strange attempts to give up magic, while the Gentleman makes his move.

You were the very reason I did magic. You were the reason I did anything.

–Strange, to Arabella

Part of what makes Strange and Norrell so charming — and what separates it from, say, Harry Potter — is that it’s historical fiction, presenting an alternate fantasy version of the Napoleonic Wars. (That’s been done before, too, notably in Namoi Novik’s Temeraire series, which reimagined the famous sea battles between the English and French by adding His Majesty’s Dragons to the mix.) Historical fiction is fun because it takes famous events and names, like Lord Wellington, and drops them into an extraordinary new narrative. Susanna Clarke’s original doorstop of a novel is peppered with extensive footnotes, many of which reference in-world magical texts of various repute, while others provide backstories and various digressions for characters both real and fictionalized.

I’ve lamented before about all of that depth being coldly excised from this adaption, but not this week. “Arabella” is the best-paced, most effective episode thus far, and sets a high bar from the opening frames: a gods-eye view of the the Battle of Waterloo, which we learn the English only won by surprise because they had a magician, and Napoleon did not. It’s an awesome opening sequence (director Toby Haynes has clearly grown in confidence) as Strange stands in the center of the English defense, fighting off the French with water, tentacle-like vines, and — most gruesomely — the dirt of the battlefield itself. The war is won, but at enormous cost, especially for Strange’s already-battered psyche. Now his hands shake, and he has sworn off practical magic for good, to the great relief of his wife.

He still has a book to publish, of course: a three-volume set that aims to upend everything Norrell has been spoon-feeding the English public since he came to Hanover Square. It’s also beautifully illustrated, thanks again to Arabella; indeed, their marriage has seemingly never been stronger. They’re even hoping to have a child soon!  Everything’s coming up Jonathan Strange, which is very bad news for Team Norrell: a blustery visit to Strange’s publisher, who is also Norrell’s publisher (or rather, was), ends in anger. Norrell fears that all the work he has done will go to waste if Strange can’t be stopped, and Lascelles is more than happy to keep feeding him that fear. Only Childermass thinks they should leave well enough alone, but his relationship with the easily manipulated Norrell is fraying. When Strange later offers to take Childermass on as a pupil, he nearly accepts, but says he and his master are not “done with each other yet.”

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There’s a steady tension this week that has been missing from previous episodes, which galloped along at a blistering pace, chewing through plot almost faster than non-readers could likely comprehend it. But now, the long-gestating plans of the Gentleman are finally coming to fruition; in typical storytelling fashion, the moment Jonathan and Arabella are at their happiest is when it’s about to come crashing down. That creepy moss oak — with the creepy Fake Arabella inside — does exactly what you feared it would; after an unhappy Stephen spirits (heh) Arabella away in a carriage, Fake Arabella is discovered wandering out in the snow, near death. Interestingly, Fake Arabella asks Strange if he “accepts” her as his wife, an oddly-phrased (and timed) question — is Strange’s answer of “yes” binding the exchange, as far as the Gentleman is concerned?

“I do not offer anything that will not be exquisitely agreeable to you,” the Gentleman tells an angry Mrs. Strange on her arrival to Lost Hope. “My husband will hear of this,” she replies, but for now, she is trapped — and worse, she’s under a spell that makes her happy to be there. At least she has poor Lady Pole for company, who had attempted to get a warning to Strange before Arabella’s abduction, but not quite in time. But with this tragic turn, the story only focuses: now Strange has something to fight for beyond an abstract concept like “the glory of English magic.” First, however, he has to discover what really happened to his wife. At the moment, he believes she’s dead. Some people believe he might have killed her.

I can pick out at least three times in “Arabella” where dialogue echoes across scenes, cleverly interlocking these parallel stories even tighter. Norrell and Strange both take their turns playing the victim: “What harm have I done him?” Norrell whines to Lascelles when he learns how Strange’s book attacks him. At the end, when Strange barges via mirror into Hanover Square to confront Norrell, he shouts “what harm have I done you?” Both of them are blind, but obviously Strange has the stronger case. Norrell’s silence, when Strange writes to him begging for help in bringing his wife back to life, is cold and unsympathetic even by Norrell’s frigid standards. But Norrell’s mind has been poisoned by Lascelles, just as Strange says Norrell has poisoned Walter Pole’s mind, and just as Lady Pole says the Gentleman has poisoned Stephen’s. In all cases, these usually intelligent people have let fear — of losing their standing, authority, or, in Stephen’s case, their life — take hold. In back to back scenes we get dire warnings: Walter can’t abide Strange promoting the Raven King, which is bad politically; Stephen can’t let Segundus and Honeyfoot solve the riddle of faerie magic. Both warnings are ignored.

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The binary of Norrell and Strange is one of mind vs. heart. Together, they can — and have — accomplish incredible things, but alone, Strange’s impetuousness and Norrell’s selfishness keep getting in the way. Strange can’t even allow himself to grieve for Arabella, so determined is he to fix the situation. He once again fails to summon a faerie, sort of: the Gentleman simply refuses to appear to his sight, preferring to mock him. (In the episode’s only real laugh, Stephen points out “you are here, sir,” which the Gentleman can’t deny.) But when Strange’s reluctant return to blood magic fails as well, and he receives no word from Norrell, only then is he willing to bury his wife and let her go, ultimately breaking down in his brother-in-law’s arms in a powerful scene from Bertie Cavel. So the newly-unhinged Strange is quick to snap when Childermass tells him Norrell is trying to get his book banned — it’s one betrayal too many, but Strange’s reckless home invasion gets him no answers. Only a prison cell.

With two episodes to go the pieces are starting to fit together, and with urgency. Segundus and Honeyfoot’s breakthrough with Lady Pole is a well-earned payoff for the hapless near-magicians, if it puts them in a position to act on what they learn. And Strange’s realization that maybe one must be a little bit mad to talk to faeries sets us up for entertaining further exploration of that world. And there’s still that business, as Vinculus reminds us this week, of the “nameless slave” and the rest of that prophecy; now that Strange has seen “his dearest possession in his enemy’s hand,” how will the rest be fulfilled?

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