post tenebras lux
Several horrible things have happened to me since Summer ’15, and I am still dealing with/divesting myself of them, and that’s why there have been no updates here. However, during my hiatal experience I had a long and slow-moving epiphany re: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and I came to realize that every single element of my reading of the book was wrong. Really, really wrong. Wrong in a way that suggests some sort of mysterious cognitive disorder of unknown etiology: “The Woman Who Mistook Her Favorite Book For A Completely Different Book.” So, we’re going to have a lot of new content here in the next few months. Also, I’ve recently upgraded to WordPress, which is now only ten or eleven times more complicated than the interface of the computer program used to operate the space shuttle. While I’m over here getting things sorted out & written, please “enjoy” this sort-of review of the novel’s now-streaming television adaptation (it is like 2000+ words long lol) (the review, not the television show). To the seventeen people who compulsively visit this webpage: Don’t quit on me now, friends!!! Tomorrow will be glorious. xoxo, Emma
(P.S. — Every possible //SPOILER//, and also I assume you know what Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is about.)
HERE IS MY REVIEW OF JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL: THE BBC OBJECT
It was terrible.
Short-but-hot take: “Imagine the Watchmen movie, but as an historical(-ish) British fantasy series battered by the poleaxes of racial obliviousness, commercial feminism, and a childlike attachment to the Superwholock genre. Now imagine that it goes on and on and on, and airs for actual months. Congratulations, you have just watched Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.”
IN WHICH YOUR REVIEWER SUBTLY REMINDS YOU THAT THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE-OFF IS NOW ON NETFLIX
My feelings about the show were mixed; I think the product was itself of transitory quality, and had quite a lot of shit stirred in together with the chocolate chips, and so it wasn’t all my fault. I vacillated — often several times within the same episode — amongst feelings of OH MY GOD, THAT WAS PERFECTLY AMAZING! and Man, that was not great at all :[ and BURN IT AND FEED THE ASHES TO THE HEEDLESS WINDS SO THAT ITS NAME MAY NEVER AGAIN BE SPOKEN BY THE TONGUES OF MEN.
In general, the series went pretty hard at the “whimsical Heyer-ish love story” elements of Clarke’s novel, and tread very delicately around the “content designed to dismay patriarchally-oriented middle-class white people who do not prefer to entertain complex sociological theories re: their position in the world” parts. It meticulously dismantled the book’s depiction of magic as a sacred expression of Otherness — portrayed in the text as an omnipresent threat feared (correctly) by the agents of orthodoxy — in order to awkwardly foreground the Stranges’ romance1 and project a hokey “gothic” atmosphere that made me worry someone was going to turn into a vampire at the end. Also, in addition to the other bad things, it was pretty boring. The show was basically a very straightforward modern romance drama upon whose heat-proof plastic lid someone had served a Regency England-shaped cake (vanilla-flavored) onto whose topmost layer the word “MAGIC” was written in big white (also vanilla-flavored) icing letters. I’ve heard there are some people who actually really like the series, but fuck those people. They can buy their own goddamned webpage.
The show wasn’t a total loss; every single one of the actors lent to their underbaked characters an air of unearned human credibility, even though most of them were (literally) required by the script to dance all around the story in ways that made less than zero sense.2 Anytime an actor had a piece of novel to embody, the results were breathtaking. Really! Fandom tends to overvalue the contributions of actors in general, of course, but I think in this one very specific instance the fawning is warranted. Favorite parts: Mr. Honeyfoot’s gentle face as he watched (the epically scary-looking) York Minster come to life, Strange’s repellent intensity while performing magical acts of torture upon those Neapolitan soldiers, Segundus’s bird-like ardor of purpose, Norrell’s Platonic Norrelliness, etc. Enzo Cilenti’s way of Childermassing caused me to rethink many of things the novel guilefully told me about the character and his position in the world, which precipitated a change in the way I related to the whole story. Speaking of which, people who know about these things have also complimented the accuracy of the regional British dialects spoken by many of the characters (Norrell had a Northern English accent, instead of whatever kind of accent British fans were expecting him to have, & it was very exciting) (obviously I wouldn’t know a correct Northern English accent if it hit me in the face with a Christmas pie, so I’ll take everyone’s word for it). The interpersonal relationships between the series’ human characters were mostly very valid and believable, leading me to think that the show was well-directed, but there were also some failures of imagination on that front re: the Other Lands & their inhabitants. The costumes were uniformly works of art, and many of the sets & background elements were very good as well. The subplot dealing with the love exploitation triangle (?) that entwined Emma Wintertowne, the Gentleman, and Sir Walter Pole wasn’t without its disappointments, but still — & owing it mostly to good acting and a few (also literal) final-hour changes — it managed to be a pretty satisfying semi-feminist microstory. The first couple episodes, in fact, were quite well-done. The very first one might’ve even been great (!). I was hopeful, for a week or two. Alas, my heart was eventually broken upon the wheel that one day grinds every magician’s glass into dust.
They gave John Uskglass’s immaculate English rain to Gilbert Norrell, as a joke! They took away his droit morale! They made him answer the summons, and there was no eye!
I’m not crying, you’re crying.
(A lie; I, too, am crying.)
OKAY SO TALK ABOUT JOHN USKGLASS NOW
As someone on Tumblr pointed out, John Uskglass looked a bit like Severus Snape, or a homeless vicar. He appeared to be wearing a dumpster-fresh Halloween wig from 2012, and they didn’t put pretty eye makeup on him. (To be fair, they might’ve run out after caking it all onto Bertie Carvel while Strange was going through his Byronic phase.) Also, and travestitically, the actor who played Uskglass was not permitted to make any noises with his mouth. Still, after watching his 62 seconds (I counted) of screentime biweekly for the last year, I can report that he’s kind of grown on me. Of all the random and horrifying spectacles I was prepared to witness at the end of the show (the end of the show was a demoralizing persecution of people who like things that make sense) (and also of Stephen Black fans), “HEY GUYS GUESS WHAT GUYS IT TURNS OUT JOHN USKGLASS IS ACTUALLY THE FRONTMAN OF A SICK DEATH METAL BAND HAHA GET THOSE LIGHTERS OUT” was not among them. But it kind of worked! It did. The leopards will be incorporated into the ritual. Please take a look at this:
Would you bone him? I would bone him. I mean, I’d make him shower first. Like three times. Maybe four times. Seven times, tops. But after that: Bone.
As for the non-physical aspects of the character’s portrayal, my lingering impression is “fuck no.”
An example: In the novel, the Raven King is inarguably a messiah figure. But he is deployed by Clarke in a way that actually refutes the traditional messiah narrative — the character doesn’t return in glory to destroy his enemies and succor his acolytes and take back his territory from the infidels. He doesn’t even let anybody know he’s there. He just stops by for a quick second to fix a couple things some morons fucked up, and then he’s out. In addition to being a refreshing departure from genre expectations, this is also criticism of the presumption that powerful (white) dudes, even satisfactory and/or holy ones, own the world and are entitled to swing their dicks around in defense of their claim to it. It also refocuses responsibility for the goodness or badness of the world onto the people who live in it, where it has always belonged in the first place. In the book, the Raven King’s very existence is an unresolved topic of debate among the other characters. Readers come to know him a little, but in the world of the story he is a falsifiable hypothesis. In the television show, the producer (?) decided to require the otherwise-excellent Vinculus to caper around shouting, “THE RAVEN WILL RETURN! HE SAID, ‘I WILL RETURN!’ HE’S RETURNING! OOOOOooooOOOOooOOOOO!” at people three or four times in every episode. And then, you know, as far as they were concerned — as far as anyone inside the story was concerned — he didn’t return. So. It didn’t even work as deus ex machina. It was more like deus est not there. Which, granted, has some extra-textual precedent, but it was still a really dumb idea. The book (or “actual”) version, in which people try desperately to make Uskglass pay attention to them and he’s all [STATUS SET TO INVISIBLE], but then is later shown to give something of a fuck, is much better. (Cf.) (Cf.) (Cf.)
Everything else about the character (and all the other characters) proceeded according to these exacting narrative standards.
Let’s talk about something else.
DO YOU WANT TO TELL US ABOUT WHAT HAPPENED TO STEPHEN BLACK
Not really, but let’s go.
DID THEY MAKE STEPHEN EXPRESS NON-CANONICAL GRATITUDE FOR THE OPPORTUNITY TO LABOR BENEATH THE BURDENS OF RACISM AND INJUSTICE
Yes, they did.
DID HE PERSONALLY LIE TO AND KIDNAP ARABELLA STRANGE
DID HE OPENLY REFUSE TO HELP LADY POLE
You know he did.
DID THEY MAKE IT LOOK LIKE HE ABANDONED ENGLAND BECAUSE HE WAS MAD AT A COUPLE DUDES
DID GILBERT NORRELL HAVE TO GIVE STEPHEN SPECIFIC INSTRUCTIONS ABOUT HOW TO USE HIS NEW MAGICAL POWERS JUST BEFORE STEPHEN CONFRONTED THE GENTLEMAN WITH THE THISTLE-DOWN HAIR
AND WAS THE GENTLEMAN SUBSEQUENTLY STRANGLED BY A LARGE RUBBER TREE, IN HIS FRONT PARLOR
You are correct.
AND DID STEPHEN THEN PERISH, WEIRDLY AND FOR NO REASON
I don’t know. Probably?
DID THE SHOW FAIL AT DEPICTING REAL-LIFE HISTORICAL RACISM IN ANY WAY AND THEN QUINTUPLE-DOWN ON A SLAVE SHIP SCENE THAT COULD HAVE BEEN CONSTRUED AS SOMEWHAT RACIST ITSELF
(っ- ‸ – ς)
DID THEY FLATTEN AND DESECRATE ALL THE POOR, MARGINALIZED, AND OTHERWISE INTERESTING CHARACTERS SO JONATHAN AND ARABELLA STRANGE COULD MAKE GOOGLY EYES AT ONE ANOTHER FOR INTERVALS THAT SEEMED TO OCCUPY ENTIRE GEOLOGICAL EPOCHS
These were excellent times to go to the bathroom.
WHAT ABOUT THE RICH WHITE GUY BROMANCE, HOW WAS THAT
It was very definitely a thing that happened. Quite often. Possibly canonically? I don’t care.
WERE ARABELLA STRANGE AND EMMA WINTERTOWNE SUFFICIENTLY PLUCKY HEROINES
They were lucky Colonel Sanders wasn’t around.
WAS THE SHOW ITSELF A RICHLY-COLORED PARADE OF ALL THE IDEAS THE NOVEL WEIGHS AND FINDS WANTING
I feel like you already know the answer to that question and you’re just trying to fuck with me.
IS THE WORD “IDEAS” USED IN THAT CONTEXT PUTTING IT A LITTLE STRONG
Final, cooler take: The show had a chance to upend some ugly traditions by crowning a black king, explaining why feminism isn’t just for extraordinary trail-blazing lady heroes, and describing in explicit detail the poverty and oppression beneath which England has buried its heart for centuries — but instead it chose to hide all its light beneath the bushel of Conventional Masterpiece Theatre-Style Period Romance Drama #492640650745 (Now With Added Purgatorial Bromantics). In the resulting darkness, it confusedly set its own shoes on fire. But it looked pretty! That’s what counts!!!
Speaking of which: Perhaps you would like to take a moment of your life to examine the series’ tragicomedic DVD cover? I too agree that An Extremely Handsome White Man With An Errol Flynn Moustache would’ve been a much better title for this elaborate, seven-hour, television show-shaped mistake.3
JONATHAN STRANGE and mr norrell: D+
Would it have worked better as a radio drama: Probably.
What happened when you saw what they did to Stephen: I cried.
Were the fairies ruined too: Weren’t even worth whining about.
Do you plan to watch further visual adaptations of texts you genuinely love: Not where anybody can see me.
Do you really think poorly of people who are fans of the series: Maybe not “poorly.” Maybe more like “condescendingly.”
Speaking of which, George R.R. Martin seems like a really lovely guy, doesn’t he: Nobody’s perfect.
Are you finished now: Maybe? It’s impossible to say. I’m a complicated person.
- Even if the “Regency courtship novel” parts of JS&MN were your favorite parts — and in that case, please examine your life very closely, ok? — the Stranges of the adaptation were significantly less strange than they should’ve been. Instead of being a paragon of ordinary, indefatigable femaleness, for example, Arabella was more or less a Strong Female Character. The actor who played her did an amazing job with the part as it was written, but thematically it was all pretty embarrassing. ↩
- ‘The Dancing Cakes’ would be a great band name. ↩
- Also, my libertarian 10th-grade boyfriend’s Magic cards called on a transparent 90s wall phone, and they want their box art back. ↩