All The Mirrors of the World

(11 comments)

Having carefully built the storytelling machine that is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell over three episodes, Harness and Haynes here start to explore some of the less obvious things that it can do. The result is yet another step up for the series. 

Two sequences strike me as particularly highlighting this sense of a show that is reveling in the basic fact of its own flexibility. The first are the sequences involving Lady Pole under the care of John Secundus and Mr. Honeyfoot, which juxtapose the acutely brutal portrayal of Lady Pole’s suffering with the awkward comedy of Secundus and Honeyfoot. A highlight is the scene where Secundus awkwardly escorts Stephen out of Lady Pole’s room and closes the door, leaning against it with a pained and awkward expression on his face. It’s set up and played as a gag - part and parcel of Secundus’s general cheery ineptitude. Edward Hogg gives a beleaguered sigh of “well that’s over with” as he leans against the door. It’s funny. As is the awkward question about how much experience they actually have in running an asylum. And then, from behind the door, comes Lady Pole’s anguished scream, completely and utterly unfunny.

It’s an impressive juxtaposition, paid off well when Secundus and Honeyfoot prove themselves to be genuinely invested in helping Lady Pole by fending off Childermass. But the reason it works is that both Lady Pole and the Secundus/Honeyfoot double act have been well established by the series. (Indeed, the entire sequence in “The Education of a Magician” in which Childermass randomly shows up to forbid the two from opening a school of magic is basically the setup for a gag in which the punchline is “so instead they run an asylum.”) And because they’ve been kept relatively separate, they’ve been allowed to develop their own narrative gravity, which is then spectacularly maintained as they cross paths. 

In many ways even more jaw-dropping is the sequence of scenes when Jonathan Strange finally goes through the mirror out onto the King’s Roads. First of all, these are just a lovely bit of visual weirdness, and the image of Jonathan Strange, dressed the perfect Romantic, striding up the stone staircase, strewn with moss and withered vines, up to the impossible vista is simply a perfect image that captures everything that the show promises. (Also lovely, the small callback to Strange and Norrell’s first meeting as Norrell looks briefly into the mirror early on, the document Strange sent through it still hanging suspended within.)

But equally great is the way in which the show transitions in and out of this. The cut into it, from Strange confronting his supposed student during the billiards game, is obvious enough, and what the King’s Road intro needed. The transition into Faerie has to be jarring. That’s the point. What didn’t have to happen, and what is thus brilliant for happening, is the transition out of Faerie into the confrontation with Drawlight, including the wonderfully ridiculous list of vendettas handed to Strange. To juxtapose the pettily mundane with Faerie as a way into an eccentric and magical space is standard. To have Strange then thunder back out of the mirror to confront a hilariously spiteful old woman and a conniving fraudster, however, is thoroughly unexpected, and a demonstration of the complexity of what this show can do.

Other highlights abound, however, in what really is an absolutely masterful hour of television. The sequence with Strange and King George is wonderful, with the decision not to actually put Marc Warren in the scene and to play it entirely from Strange’s perspective giving it a truly unsettling tinge. (Also great, Cavell’s reaction to the king vanishing, which is perfectly understated.) And the final confrontation between Norrell and Strange, where Norrell finally makes a desperate attempt at compromise (which Strange, touchingly, notes the significance of even as he declines it) is fantastically done. 

Indeed, given this scene, it’s worth revisiting the nature of the Strange/Norrell dualism, which started as a simple chaos/order dichotomy in the classic sense, but has by now evolved into something altogether more complex, not least because of the way in which it connects tacitly with the relationship between faerie and the marginal. Norrell’s position - which the narrative has at this point made aggressively unsympathetic (Marsan’s herculean task in maintaining the least bit of sympathy for his character this episode comes in the scenes at Childermass’s bedside) - is rapidly becoming understandable as a stand-in for both the Enlightenment and Victorian projects that the story is carefully set between, with the modernizing urge to bulldoze the past and create an entirely new structure being inextricable from the way in which this also bulldozes oppressed populations.

Strange’s position, on the other hand, is firmly a Romanticist one. At this point in the narrative it is tempting to call it sympathetic - certainly Strange has been the protagonist of the last two episodes where Norrell has been the antagonist, at least in a structural sense - but there’s an acute sense that this is being set up to subsequently be knocked down. Strange may be the sympathetic figure, after all, but the episode takes pains to show the degree to which his romanticism is entirely useless. He continues not to poke at the matter of Lady Pole, for instance, and the audience is put on Arabella’s side when she calls him out on his desire to explore the King’s Roads. It is, ultimately, being set up as a sort of sympathetic egotism - he is, in the end, conceived of in terms of his greatness, a decidedly dangerous concept in a story so invested in the plight of the little people.

So all in all, a fantastic episode of television that finds new things to do with its premise while continuing to hone a thorough and insightful critique of the usual rhetoric of fantasy. Basically, this is the Evil of the Daleks of our age.

Ranking

  1. All the Mirrors of the World
  2. The Education of a Magician
  3. How is Lady Pole?
  4. The Friends of English Magic

Comments

Aylwin 2 years, 5 months ago

I don't think Norrell's position can actually be credibly equated with the Enlightenment or the idea of modernity, despite some superficial associations. His autocratic authoritarianism is defensible as part of a hostile but credible portrayal, especially in the era of the French Revolution with its totalitarian rationalism. But in other respects he amounts to an outright inversion of Enlightenment/modern thought: his scholastic reliance on the authority of the past, as represented by his books (which seems to concede the territory of original thought, as well as free thought, entirely to Strange's Romantic spontaneity), and his obscurantist hoarding of knowledge.

Someone previously suggested Neoclassicism as corresponding to Norrell's position, and I think that continuation of the Renaissance tradition, with its dogmatic imposition of a single aesthetic standard founded on the authority of the past, is a much better fit here than the Enlightenment or small-m modernism more generally. So the only viable analogy seems to be with artistic rather than intellectual history.

However, things get really confused with regard to the Raven King, especially as here we really do seem to be inescapably in the intellectual rather than the artistic sphere. Strange, his advocate, associates him with Newton, the poster-boy of the Enlightenment (however questionable its veneration of him might be), which sits oddly with Strange's Romanticism. But the figure who he really seems to correspond to is surely Aristotle, the unapproachably superior Master Of Those Who Know, personification of the authority of the past, whose dethroning was the beginning of modernity. In his hostility to the Raven King, Norrell really does line up with modernity, and against classicism, while Strange does the reverse, in a way that does not seem to correspond to anything in actual Romanticism.

I don't think it's too spoilerific to say that the story effectively endorses that classicist veneration of the authority of the past, in that it never attempts to contest the idea that Raven King is ineffably superior to anyone in the field of magic.

Link | Reply

David Anderson 2 years, 5 months ago

The English Romantics have an ambivalent relation to Newton. Blake and Keats are hostile. Wordsworth on the other hand in the later version of the Prelude describes him as 'a mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone' - which is certainly to see him as a forerunner of one vein of romanticism; and I think Coleridge and Shelley too were inclined to see Newtonian and poetic activities as complimentary.
In addition, I don't think any of the Romantics saw themselves as breaking with the past entirely. All the Romantics, even Shelley, (but not Byron who was an admirer of Pope and Swift) wanted to appeal to the Renaissance and Middle Ages - or more precisely to selected parts of how they imagined them.

Link | Reply

David Anderson 2 years, 5 months ago

I have seen the final episode since the last review came up, and I am now awaiting the chance to discuss the differences between the book and the television.

To pick up something Phil said about the Gentleman with Thistledown Hair last week: I don't think the Gentleman is an alternative to the hierarchy of early nineteenth century England so much as a parody, or a laying bare of the essence of it. Both Lady Pole and Stephen are status symbols for Lord Pole: they're allowed to wield power as his agents as long as they play along with the system (which Lady Pole doesn't and Stephen does). The Gentleman's treatment of them differs from Lord Pole's only in that the Gentleman is far more able to enforce compliance and even more oblivious to their actual agency. (I'll leave Strange and Arabella out of this analysis until the final episode.)

Link | Reply

Aylwin 2 years, 5 months ago

Thank you for the information on Newton and the Romantics - I did not know that. Not so incongruous then.

I can see now that my wording at the end of my penultimate paragraph was wildly misleading. I did not mean to suggest that the Romantics were hostile to the past, which as you say was important to them, to the extent that Romanticism would become very closely associated with anti-modernity (even if it did not start out that way). I was just making a much more limited point, that one area where Romanticism did not challenge the preceding cultural currents was regarding the demotion of antiquity from its status as the supreme source of secular wisdom - "Bring back Aristotle!" was hardly a Romantic rallying cry.

Link | Reply

Aylwin 2 years, 5 months ago

Meant to say, you were the "someone" I mentioned before.

Link | Reply

Aylwin 2 years, 5 months ago

Might also make clear that I'm not suggesting any association between the Raven King and Aristotle in terms of the ideas they stand for, just that if you look at them as figures in the "history" of thought rather than as sets of ideas, there's a kind of structural correspondence there.

Link | Reply

TheSmilingStallionInn 2 years, 5 months ago

Just a quick question, to avoid spoilers: Is it wildly different from the end of the book, possibly changing its outcome, or just a variation of the book's ending with some changes?

Link | Reply

John 2 years, 5 months ago

It was not wildly different.

Link | Reply

David Anderson 2 years, 5 months ago

I think some characters have a bigger part in events and one important character has less of a role, and that has an affect on one's reading of the story.
Also, a scene post-climax has a different emotional weight.

Link | Reply

Scurra 2 years, 5 months ago

I might disagree with your last line, but it involves going too far down discussions that we can't really have for a few weeks...

Link | Reply

David Faggiani 2 years, 3 months ago

Does this series remind anyone else of 'The Deal', the New Labour drama? Strange as Blair, Norrell as Brown?

Link | Reply

New Comment

required

required (not published)

optional

Recent Posts

Archive

Tags

Authors

Feeds

RSS / Atom