The Role of History in Susanna Clarke's "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell"

Bachelor Thesis 2014 40 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of contents

1 Introduction
1.1 Theoretical Background
1.2 Approach

2 Main Part
2.1 King George's 'Madness'
2.2 The Napoleonic Wars and Waterloo
2.3 Italy and Lord Byron
2.4 Results

3 Conclusion

1 Introduction

“I wanted to write about magicians. […] I really like magicians” (Hodgman 1) is what Susanna Clarke says about her motivation to write her first novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Indeed, it is a book about magicians. Two magicians whose relationship is represented in the title of the book which strongly reminds of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde. They are opposed but still belong to each other as the other famous (or rather infamous) 'couple'. However, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is about so much more than simply those magicians. It is about history, love, madness, fairies, war and wisdom. Despite Susanna Clarke's ingenious writing, there have been only scarce attempts to introduce her novel into academic discourse and scholarly criticism. This essay is one of the first attempts to interpret Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell on an academic basis. It will focus on the representations of history in the novel and the way Clarke uses historical circumstances of the nineteenth century to develop her plot.

1.1 Theoretical Background

Sometimes history* and fiction overlap. There is literature about history (novels, plays, poetry) and history about literature. But there is more to it: in fact, some people interpret history as just another kind, or genre, of narration. Both history and fictional stories have the same underlying structure of a narrative: they have a beginning, a middle and an end. History as well as stories have to make sense and come to a conclusion. Jonathan Culler explains it as follows: “the model for historical explanation is thus the logic of stories: the way a story shows how something came to happen, connecting the initial situation, the development, and the outcome in a way that makes sense” (19). However, this is not the only aspect in which history and literature are overlapping.

Mary Fulbrook argues in her work Historical Theory that “history is both an art and a science […]. History involves creative leaps of the imagination; but it is at the same time a discipline characterised by collective discourses with a variety of concepts, questions, methods, procedures, and standards of evaluation” (185). By “leaps of the imagination” (185) Fulbrook has in mind those parts of history writing that are based on interpretation rather than cold facts. An example: historians know that Napoleon Buonaparte crowned himself Emperor of France in 1804 and that he initiated a series of war all over Europe and that he eventually was defeated in the Battle of Waterloo and sent to St Helena in 1815. However, how it came to happen that way, how a boy from Corsica could become the most powerful man in Europe and how his power declined, historians do not know for certain. Those gaps of knowledge have to be filled by interpretations and by “the mind of the historian reflecting on them” (White in Fulbrook 66). Thus, history and literature are closer to each other than one would assume.

But why should someone bother to compare history and literature in the first place? Initially, literature and history belonged to the same branch of sciences for a long time (cf. Hutcheon Poetics 105). It was only in the nineteenth century when scholars decided that literature is fictional and history is truth. The nineteenth-century historian Leopold von Ranke pursued the ideal that history should be the “discovery of what 'really happened' in the past” (Southgate 14). He said that “the first demand [for a historian] is pure love of truth” (von Ranke in Southgate 14).

This view, however, is unwarrantable today. Now, theorists stress the close connection between history and fiction which is most of all informed through the actual subjectivity of both fields. Modern historians argue that history can never be as objective as von Ranke claimed. The way in which historians perceive history is always subjective. Although they can read a quantity of primary sources and material, they will never achieve a full understanding of a given period in history, their view on the past is always subjectively informed through their character, interests, emotions etc. In consequence, there will always be a difference between what happened and what is written about it. Jonathan Hart puts it in Literature, Theory, History as follows: “the historical text and the world it describes and interprets are not identical no matter how mimetic or realistic history is thought to be” (142). That means that texts about history, as they are, cannot be objective but are always subjectively informed through the narrative voice of the historian who has but a limited perspective on the events as he did not live them but only re-constructs them from contemporary sources. In brief, what happened is that the signifier (texts about history) strongly differs from the signified (history itself).

Apart from the subjective approach to history that cannot be avoided, the means by which historians confer their knowledge to the reader are also ambiguous. Those means, by nature are literary because historians have to employ words, phrases, metaphors, similes etc. to write anything at all. This means that “what distinguishes 'historical' from 'fictional' stories is first and foremost their content, rather than their form” (White 27). Roland Barthes sceptically observes about this fact: “the circle of paradox is complete. Narrative structure, which was originally developed within the cauldron of fiction (in myths and the first epics) becomes at once the sign and the proof of reality” (de Groot 110) in texts about history.

Hayden White even goes so far as to classify historical writings as a narrative mode itself rather than the representation of truth (cf. de Groot 111). He argues that employing literary techniques in history writing actually improves historical texts: “history as a discipline is in bad shape today because it has lost sight of its origins in the literary imagination. In the interest of appearing scientific and objective, it has repressed and denied to itself its greatest source of strength and renewal” (Fulbrook 55). Using the literary, narrative mode in historical texts is controversial. First, it hinders historians to convey an objective meaning, for the text is always influenced by their style of writing, emotions, interests and their character. The assumption that pure truth can be achieved is thus no longer valid. But on the other hand, the literary mode is the only means to bring the content closer to the reader and to inform about past events. Alun Munslow argues that “the genuine nature of history can be understood only when it is viewed not solely and simply as an objectivised empiricist enterprise, but as the creation and eventual imposition by historians of a particular narrative form on the past” (de Groot 111). Despite the close connection between historical and literary narratives, there are differences between fiction and history: “history is what happened and not what might have happened” (Hart 143) and whereas the writer can invent things and re-create reality differently, the historian cannot. Therefore, 'history' and 'story' cannot be used synonymously. History, thus can be seen as nothing but a story or narration, but there is always the notion of reality, of a representation of truth that is connected to history whereas literary fiction knows no constraints whatsoever.

The author of fictional texts, however, can play with the idea that history and the world of literature are close to each other. This idea influenced a lot of historical narratives, like Shakespeare's historical plays (e. g. Richard III), Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe or the more contemporary The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. These texts tell history in a narrative voice but not on a scientific or historiographical but in a creative, literary way. The texts explore “the legendary and fictional aspects of the historical” (Hart 142), those parts of the history which we know less about and which exhibit an “open boundary between event and interpretation” (Hart 142) which is to be filled by either the historian or the writer. Historians fill them with what is most likely to be true whereas writers can reflect on the context and historical circumstances from a more distant point of view. The writer of fictional texts does not have to pursue the truth but is freer in the way he or she interprets the gaps of knowledge.

Although the genre of historical writing is not a very young one, it is seen by critics as an essentially Postmodernist phenomenon. It is especially Postmodern writers that stress the above mentioned connection between history and literature (cf. Fulbrook 18). Postmodernist literature explores the boundaries between fact and fiction to a much wider degree than previous historical literature, “in a way that is much more self-conscious than many uses in Shakespeare, which constituted a view that emphasized historical accuracy and difference as much as historians in our century, the interweaving of fantasy and actuality, and the contradiction of historical events” (Hart 151). Postmodernist writers stress the relativity of history. They argue that “because a plurality of stories can be written on the basis of the ‘same’ (but, in some versions, essentially unknowable) past, then all are ‘just constructs’, and none can be shown to be more adequate ‘windows on’ or ‘pictures of’ the past than others” (Fulbrook 186). In brief, there are no right or wrong, better or worse accounts of history, and as all can be equally true or untrue, there simply is no means to know 'the real' history or universal truth about history. Postmodernists argue that because historians cannot give an ultimate answer about how history was, they can introduce their own versions of history to the readership which might just be as accurate as the historians' versions. Linda Hutcheon furthermore argues in her book The Politics of Postmodernism that Postmodernist writers challenge the way people perceive history. Historians, in her opinion impose order on the past (cf. Politics 67). During the time in which certain events happened, they must have seemed as equally confusing for the contemporaries as the modern age is for people today. It is only historians, who retrospectively structure past events to arrange them chronologically and impose meaning on them. “The process of making stories out of chronicles, of constructing plots out of sequences, is what postmodern [sic] fiction underlines” (Hutcheon Politics 66). This, however, is a highly artificial process as the past, when it was present, was neither structured nor ordered. Moreover, historians can always decide which past events to focus on, to stress and which to neglect or omit. The question then poses itself: “Which 'facts' make it into history? And whose facts?” (Hutcheon Politics 71). Hutcheon says that “all past 'events' are potential historical 'facts', but the ones that become facts are those that are chosen to be narrated” (75, emphasis added). In brief, Hutcheon claims that Postmodernists writers criticise the idea that it is always the 'victors' who write history and that cultural domination most often also means historical domination and vice versa. Postmodernists “refuse the view that only history has a truth claim, both questioning the ground of that claim in historiography and by asserting that both history and fiction are discourses, human constructs, signifying systems” (Hutcheon Poetics 93) which aim to represent reality. However, what is most important is that “what the postmodern [sic] writing of both history and literature has taught us is that both history and fiction are discourses, that both constitute systems of signification by which we make sense of the past” (Hutcheon Poetics 89). In challenging, re-inventing and questioning history and it's perception, Postmodernist writers aimed at a more complete understanding of the past.

An important leitmotif of texts that include history into their plot is intertextuality. Through intertextuality, literature and reality are connected. Here, the hypotext is not another literary work (although the texts may include those as well) but the past. Historical literature has “direct links to the world of empirical reality, but it is not itself that empirical reality. [The] representation of the real is not the same as the real itself. […] The postmodern is self-consciously art 'within the archive' and that archive is both historical and literary” (Hutcheon Poetics 125). This means that Postmodernists deliberately employ not only literature but also the past as reference in order to question and challenge history and its perception. The overt intertextuality of Postmodernist writings about history “serves as one of the textual signals of […] postmodern realization [sic]” (Hutcheon Poetics 128) of historical discourse. Postmodernist texts thus expect their readers to recognise the intertextual hints towards the textualised historical events and “also the awareness of what has been done – through irony – to those [events]” (Hutcheon Poetics 127). Postmodernist authors demand of their readers to be as interrogative and questioning about history as they themselves are.

1.2 Approach

The Postmodernists' concern with history and their questioning of it led to a creative output of works about history, as for example alternative histories or historiographic metafiction. One of the creative works of Postmodernism about history is Susanna Clarke's historical fantasy novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Clarke adds to the Postmodern discourse about history but is not as critical of history and its perception as most Postmodernists; she does not, as other writers, “problemati[se] the entire notion of historical knowledge” (Hutcheon Politics 89) but rather makes use of historical circumstances to advance her story. What is Postmodern about Clarke's work is the “imaginative reconstruction” (Hutcheon Poetics 92) of history and knowledge about it. Indicative for Clarke's writing and the genre of historical fantasy is the intertextual mixture of historical accuracy and fictional, in this case even fantastical, elements. Clarke as the author combines abilities of the historian and the novelist in writing this book. In her text, she reshapes and re-invents the history of the nineteenth century. Clarke does not claim her story to be another version of historical writing about the nineteenth century. Rather, she explores the boundaries between what really happened and what might have happened had magic really existed in the England of the nineteenth century. Clarke overtly makes use of actual historical occurrences and events such as the Napoleonic Wars and lets her fictional characters interact with people who really lived in the early decades of the nineteenth century. She employs three instances of history in her novel that were of major importance for the early 1800s. The first instance is the illness of King George III, who was thought to be mad and had to hand over his monarchical power to his eldest son. George's state of health was of crucial importance to most of his subjects as it did influence the political environment in the years from 1810-1820 (cf. Peters and Beveridge 33). Another historical event Clarke includes in the novel are the Napoleonic Wars and the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Today, historians still understand the reign of Napoleon and his defeat at Waterloo as a shaping force for the development and history of Europe. The last historical circumstance incorporated in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is the belated Grand Tour of the middle classes that emerged in the earlier decades of the nineteenth century. Along with the reference to the Grand Tour goes the introduction of Lord Byron, the most popular of the Romantic poets, as minor character in the novel.

Why did Clarke include real historical events in her novel, why did she not simply follow the fashion of High Fantasy and create a world that has no similarities with the real world? And to what extent can she be seen as reliable in what concerns the historical accounts in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell? In order to solve those questions, this essay discusses the role history has in the novel and how fictional and actual events are inter-related. It thereby focusses on the function of the above mentioned historical instances in the book and contrasts them with Clarke's own re-interpretations. The text argues that Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell employs real historical occurrences as a framework in which she embeds the novel's plot, giving her readers a factual background in order to make her story appear more authentic.

2 Main Part

2.1 King George's 'Madness'

Susanna Clarke decided to include one of the most popular figures of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century in her book. King George III reigned over Great Britain from 1760 to 1820 (cf. Ormrod 454). His reign was marked by the loss of the American colonies, the Napoleonic Wars and the state of his personal health. Indeed, George's reputation (past and present) is heavily influenced by his supposed insanity. Whereas today many historians argue that he suffered from a physical illness rather than a mental condition, his contemporaries thought of him as 'mad'. Historians assume that the fits of illness in the years of 1788-89, 1801, 1804 and 1810 were caused by porphyria. The symptoms of porphyria include: “abdominal colic with nausea, vomiting and constipation, sometimes diarrhoea, […] muscular weakness, […] and cerebral symptoms from depression or excitement to delirium, rigors [sic], convulsions, and coma […] insomnia, fast pulse, hoarseness or loss of voice, difficulty in swallowing, transient visual impairment, headache, vasomotor disturbances, and skin lesions” (Macalpine and Hunter 9). Moreover, “patients feel gravely ill and often have a sense of impending death. […] Rapid fluctuations occur but convalescence is protracted with great debility. Infections, even colds, can usher in an attack. […] During attacks the urine is often coloured-from deep amber, red, or reddish-brown to purple like port wine” (Macalpine and Hunter 9). From contemporary descriptions, historians know that those are exactly the symptoms George III suffered from. Only in 1968, researchers connected the symptoms with porphyria. However, more recent studies criticise the porphyria approach. In 2010, psychologists claimed, that George's illness was indeed mental rather than physical. They argue that George suffered from a bipolar disorder, a manic-depressive psychosis (cf. Peters and Beveridge 20). Normally, fits of bipolar disorders occur in the summer months. George's episodes, however, always commenced in the early winter months, an indicator for George having a sub-type of depression with an autumn-winter onset. Moreover, his physical symptoms like abdominal pain etc. also occur with depressive patients and are therefore not exclusively indicative for porphyria (cf. Peters and Beveridge 32). Timothy Peters and Allan Beveridge criticise inconsistencies in the porphyria study as it neglects certain criteria that point at a mental condition presumably in order to clear “the House of Hanover of an hereditary taint of madness” (34). Thus, the case of King George's madness is still widely discussed and not yet resolved. Scholars do not know for certain whether George's illness was rather mental or physical and also the reasons for the illness “remain an unsolved mystery” (Peters and Wilkinson 3).

Nonetheless, George's contemporaries (and probably he himself) were convinced that George was insane. Naturally, his illness was commonly known and subject to many satirical remarks about the king and which was argued to resemble the state of his country. “That three kingdoms should depend on the brain of one man”, Edward Gibbon wrote about the condition of the country and Percy Shelley refers to England being ruled by an “old, mad, blind, despised and dying King” (Ditchfield 16). Even if George III was not “clinically insane, there could be no question of his being dismissed as a fundamentally weak man who suffered breakdowns as a result of stress” (Ditchfield 18). And so even today many think of George III as the 'mad' king, as this connotation became deeply embedded in the cultural memory (cf. Ditchfield 16). Fits of the illness often appeared after crucial events: In 1785, the heir to the throne, his eldest son George, made a secret marriage to a Catholic woman and thereby gave up his right to the throne. It is possible that the first attack of the illness in 1788/89 was triggered by this incident. During that first fit, George's “behaviour was at times extremely violent, his conversation indecent and his doctors resorted to a strait-jacket” (Cannon and Hargreaves 326). The last illness, which Susanna Clarke includes in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, was recorded in 1810 and lasted until his death in 1820. It is also said to be influenced by a tragic incident. The shock over the death of his most beloved, youngest daughter Amelia “proved crucial to George's deterioration” (Black 407). The symptoms of his 'insanity' became again visible by 25 October 1810, when George made his last public appearance and on 1 November his doctors reported “a state of debility and vacancy of mind” (Black 407). At first, his family and doctors had hopes of another recovery, but “gradually [George] lapsed into a twilight world, unable to distinguish past and present, and conversing with long-dead ministers. […] George spent his last years at Windsor, blind and increasingly deaf, comforted by his old and battered harpsichord. Of events in the world outside, he knew nothing” (Cannon and Hargreaves 327). Although he recovered from his fever in 1810/11, George is said to never having regained his complete mental awareness. Therefore, in June 1811, the madhouse attendants Dr Robert Willis and his brother completely took over the king's management. His “pages were replaced by Willis's keepers. […] George was exposed to the 1788 system of seclusion and restraint, a policy that, by cutting him off, made him increasingly isolated” (Black 409). Hence, he died lonely, secluded and mentally disoriented in Windsor Castle in 1820.

Contemporary descriptions of the king's behaviour give a rather good impression of how the king acted in his attacks of illness. The following quotations are recordings from the 1788/89 illness of George:

Saturday 22 Nov.: In the course of this Conversation with the general [Budé] he related to Him some phantoms of his delusion during his delirium – Said He had thought there had been a deluge – That He had seen Hanover through Herschells [sic] Telescope – That He had thought Himself inspired &c. &c. Thursday 25 Dec.: Among his extravagances of the Moment He had at this time hid part of the Bed Clothes under his bed, had taken off his Night Cap, & got a Pillow Case round his head, & Pillow in the bed with Him, which He called Prince Octavius, who He said was to be new born this day (Peters and Beveridge 28)



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Title: The Role of History in Susanna Clarke's "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell"