Jonathan Strange, Mr Norrell, and the Industrial Revolution

I read Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell a decade ago (blog post here) and recently watched the BBC adaptation. I’d agree with Kate Nepveu that the miniseries is worth watching even though the changes in plot make it less compelling and less politically trenchant than the book. The two main women and the major character of color, Stephen Black, become more passive and less impressive in the miniseries than they are in the novel.

I still have’t seen anyone else draw the parallel that struck me as obvious when I read the book in 2007. I shouldn’t have called it an “allegory” of the Industrial Revolution because that would imply a mechanical, one-to-one correspondence between magic in Jonathan Strange and industrialization in Britain ca. 1800. But I think that Clarke is playing with the similarities.

Essential components of the industrial economy, such as the spinning jenny (1770), the modern steam engine (1778), iron-rolling (1783), and the manufacture of sodium carbonate (1791) were typically invented by gentlemen-amateurs in Northern England or Lowland Scotland. These men won patents and drew attention for their small miracles of automation: making devices that moved on their own. They often formed clubs and societies. The Napoleonic Wars promoted industrialization: the first mass-produced components were pulley blocks for Royal Navy ships. But it was only as these wars ended that many small inventions came together to transform the world. Latent power was unleashed from under the earth, blackening the skies. New roads (made of iron rails) suddenly crisscrossed the land, allowing rapid movement. The people who understood and controlled these new powers and resources became the rulers of Britain, supplanting the old owners of ordinary land. And it all depended ultimately on the slave trade and the labor of Africans.

I won’t give away the plot, but it seems to me that magic follows the same trajectory in the world of Jonathan Strange. Northern gentlemen experimenters, the revelation of powers dormant underground, the influence of the Napoleonic Wars, rapid movement on the king’s new roads, a key role for a former slave, and the resulting social upheaval all resemble the Industrial Revolution. The main contrast is that magic in Clarke’s world is a medieval power rediscovered or revived by Mr Strange and Mr Norrell. Notwithstanding a scattered heritage of cottage industries and Cornish mining, industrial manufacturing was something truly new after 1770. The medieval background gives Clarke’s world an appealing spookiness, but I still think that industrial history is what interests her.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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