Wednesday, 18 November 2015

“A Glimpsed Alternative”: On Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2015) and its place within British telefantasy

This piece was first published in "You and Who Else: A History of British Telefantasy as written by the people who watched it", edited by JR Southall, in November 2015. It's a beautiful volume and chronicles a vast number of different programmes from 1953 to the present day: the perfect Christmas gift! It can be bought here at Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/You-Else-J-R-Southall-Editor/dp/1519368240/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1448813672&sr=8-1&keywords=you+and+who+else

One of my earliest, fondest memories is of a huge red volume called “Once Long Ago”, a battered old treasure trove of fairy tales from all over the world, and to my infant mind the biggest, most unknowable book anyone had ever written. In fact, I don’t think I thought of it as a book that someone had written at all; these fables seemed somehow handed down from on high. Of course, all the tales were considerably more entrancing than those stodgy books that adults read, but it was the stories of Central Europe and Scandinavia that captivated me most - those valleys and forests, wooden huts and mountains. It is small wonder, then, that I went on to be both a student of German and Russian at university and a lover of all things folkloric and mythical.
As a student of German literature, one of my main interests is the eighteenth century dualism between the movements of Romanticism and the Enlightenment, a dualism laid bare and dissected in almost every culture over and over again. We can call it chaos and order; arts and sciences; passion and logic; emotionalism and rationalism; but at its most simple it’s heart and head. This last pair of terms indicates that it is not simply a matter of historical eras, but even of the way we live our day-to-day lives, make our daily choices and react to situations. Understanding and balancing heart and head is an integral part of a person’s mental wellbeing, and something I find of immense fascination in everybody I meet and in all art I encounter. It is a timeless conflict.
The BBC’s production of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2015) is both a successor to those old fairy tales and a powerful dramatization of this conflict. The programme was not a resounding success in ratings terms, but I believe the reasons for this are precisely what made it the most beautiful, startlingly original piece of telefantasy created in years. Let’s be honest, an alternate history of a magical England during the Napoleonic Wars is an awkward anomaly in broadcasting – broadly speaking, the presence of zombies, towers of darkness and disappearing books alienates the devotees of straightforward costume drama, while the inclusion of political machinations, social commentary and authentic period detail is off-putting to those looking for pure fantasy. As in any Venn diagram, such opposing circles result in a small intersection of the two, in which a happy few, such as myself, found their sweet spot perfectly catered for. To my eyes, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell united fantasy and realism in a way that was simultaneously unique and yet tremendously emblematic of fantasy’s appeal as a whole. There has been little like it on television before, and there may well never be again. Indeed, upon watching the 1998 production of Vanity Fair, which was the next costume drama I came across and is set in a near-identical period of English history, my initial response was: “I quite like Thackeray, but where are the zombies?”
In a 2002 lecture given by Seamus Heaney called The Redress of Poetry, the Irish writer referred to “a glimpsed alternative”.  Though it was naturally enough poetry of which he was speaking, I feel that of all the genres in the literary canon, it is fantasy to which this label is best applied. All fantasy is a glimpsed alternative; all fantasy is at a skewed, jaunty, parallel angle to the world we know. Fantasy is a “could be” rather than an “is”, something which goes beyond mere journalistic observations about the level of the real, and concerns itself with the unreal, the surreal, or the hyperreal. Fantasy offers me a sideways step, a glance at a different world, and it is that which has always entranced me.
Yet fantasy that doesn’t relate to our shared human experience is often unsatisfactory. To sever ties too dramatically with the real, social, everyday world is frequently to remove all sense of cogency, urgency, and relevance. It is in this regard, and in keeping with the proud tradition of blending fantasy with realism, that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell most excels, and which most made it what it was to me – a programme that came along at the right time and struck a chord with my own thoughts and feelings.
In Jonathan Strange, brilliant and driven by supernatural inspiration, I saw a classic Romantic figure: the foppish, impressionable young student who “discovers” the world of Faerie is typical of the German fantasy I surround myself with. Gilbert Norrell, meanwhile, is largely though not utterly presented along Enlightenment lines – the meticulous scholar, the man of learning and research, widely respected and admired in high society (the end goal of every student, naturally). Thrillingly, the series problematizes this further: the structure of both the original novel and the TV adaptation means we never quite know who the authors are intending us to side with, and better still, the character of Norrell in particular sees the old Romantic / Enlightenment paradigm weaken and the clarity of the division somehow smudged. Norrell is a man who desperately wants respectability, order, and neatness, and yet he is prepared to dabble in the dark, chaotic world of Faerie to achieve this. No surprise, then, that these two characters set my German-loving heart and brain ablaze!
That is not all the series does, of course. It may borrow from French and German philosophies, but it is uniquely English in tone. This endeared it to me still further, though not because it is in any sense nationalistic or patriotic, or at least not in the way tabloid headlines can be. Rather it concentrates on folkloric myth, on stories and thoughts and dreams as something inherent in a particular landscape, like a half-forgotten understanding of ancientness that has been passed down the generations. It is a spell woven out of the heritage of old Albion, with a direct thread to King Arthur and to Beowulf and beyond – and, of course, to many of the tales of “Once Long Ago” I grew up hearing read from that tatty old book.
This is counterbalanced by perhaps the series’ most modern element: a strong rooting in the drive for social progress, taking the traditional historical novel of the nineteenth century and granting considerable narrative power to the characters that would normally be ignored or pushed to one side. There’s Arabella, for instance, Jonathan Strange’s long-suffering wife, who in my view is even better characterised in the series than the novel. There is the remarkable Lady Pole, enslaved, silenced and thought mad by the men in her life, as patients with so-called “female hysteria” so often were in this era, yet granted power above and beyond her husband in the end. There’s Stephen Black, born on a slave ship traversing the Atlantic to a mother who died in childbirth, the property of a wealthy white man (“our meaning is written on our skin”), a magnificent character who ascends to become ruler of the fantasy realm at the story’s close. The story is genuinely invested in the importance of these characters, and indeed on many occasions they drive the plot forward and make the crucial decisions more than the two opposing magicians. It’s one of the many elements of this story that make it a clever sideways step from the conventional genres it evokes – as a glimpsed alternative of a nineteenth century where equality, like the balance of heart and head, can, in Heaney’s phrasing, be redressed.
But we must return to our two magicians. What Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell does in presenting the tension between them is to give us a twist on the relationship between fantasy and realism in general, and to justify – in my eyes – why it is that we love these kinds of stories. It’s that relationship, after all, which produces the fantasy that lingers longest in my mind – a snowy forest glimpsed through an ordinary household wardrobe; an old-fashioned boarding school where owls deliver post and poltergeists fill the halls; a vast time machine contained within a 1960s police box. It is the intersection which I find most powerful –where the everyday meets the magical; the gateway to Lost Hope; the portal to Faerie; or the point at which Strange and Norrell are reconciled, and each realise the other’s worth. The conflict framed in terms of Strange and Norrell as individuals is not simply the struggle between two men, nor is it merely a twenty-first century take on Romanticism vs. Enlightenment. Rather, I see it as a comment on the nature of fantasy and realism, and why they are both worth our time as allies rather than as opposites.
The idea that I must fall down on one side or the other, that fantasy is something I should grow out of and realism constitutes serious books for adults, is ultimately unhelpful. The grotesque fairy-tale horror of the universe I live in, the portal to Faerie, is parallel to the mundane, not an antithesis to it. There is no conclusion as to which of them is “better”. A prosaic life such as Norrell’s would seem dull to Strange, and yet the choices Strange makes in fulfilling his own artistic vision bring him only tragedy and loss. Similarly, Norrell’s joy at his first sight of the Faerie kingdom suggests that not every satisfaction can be found in books and learning. One must be Joseph Campbell’s “master of two worlds”, of real and unreal; one must straddle both, or one is lost. I cannot depend wholly on fantasy, and yet prosaic realism alone is not enough. To land firmly on one side of the divide, it appears, leads to insanity.
Ultimately the two characters cross the partition together into another kind of reality, and are left dancing in the ether, “on the other side of the rain”. This may only be conjured up in dialogue, but it is quite possibly the series’ single most marvellous image. They are the final words of the series; indeed, Childermass speaking them is the closing shot. It is the pièce de résistance. I see it as expressing where all fictional characters go when they “die”, that is to say when the book is closed shut for the last time or when the scrolling credits of the series finale have finished. It was then that I was left feeling that I’d seen something new and ancient, both vividly unknown to me and yet known all along: a story handed down over the centuries rather than one scripted in a writer’s office a few years ago.  Because Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell coexist in my mind as surely as the genre of observational realism alongside grotesque fantasy on the page, or joy alongside heartbreak in a human life. They’re on the other side of the rain now, on our side of the TV screen. It’s where they’ve gone to live out this drama as a spell in unison. They’re in your head, and in your heart.
They’ll certainly never leave mine.

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