After an opening episode establishing the principal characters, their alternate Napoleonic Wars period and a massive dollop of atmosphere derived from Susannah Clarke’s book, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell came back for a second episode still working towards the main body of the story, by bringing together – and separating – the two title characters, and expanding upon the implications of last week’s miraculous conclusion in the restoration of Lady Pole from death to life.
The two primary strands in this episode are the taking of Jonathan Strange as an apprentice by Mr Norrell, and the unfortunate side-effects upon Lady Pole of her resurrection, or rather the Gentleman’s manipulation of Mr Norrell’s need of his aid, to ends unforeseen by the Magician and not necessarily of advantage to him or, sadly, Lady Pole herself.
Before this, we start with Mr Norrell’s triumphant entry to the War Office, acclaimed for his feat of true magic and now welcomed as a saviour in Britain’s war against the French. His hangers-on, D|rawlight and Lascelles, are still preceding him, and Norrell has his own agenda which is pretty much a condition of his aid being granted. This is quite the selfish thing: Norrell considers himself to be the only Magician in England, bent on restoring Magic to respectability, but only upon the terms he permits. As an adjunct to this, he wants anyone who even thinks of themselves as a magician of any kind shut down and run off, whilst every Magic book that exists should be gathered together under his personal control, only he to consult them.
Messrs Secundus and Honeyfoot, formerly of the (now-dissolved) Friends of Magic of York, are still pursuing their own ends, Secundus being the only Magician of York who did not promise to shut himself down in promise to Norrell. They find Jonathan Strange, and his wife, Arabella. They learn him to be a naturally gifted Magician, without books or training. They suggest he apprentice himself to Mr Norrell. Of whom Mr Strange has never heard.
Things are already afoot. To his chagrin, Norrell finds he has been outfoxed by the Gentleman. It is his own fault: in agreeing that the Gentleman should have half Lady Pole’s life he failed to define such a term. He assumed she would live until 40 then die. Instead, the half of her life that the Gentleman has is the night.
At night, Lady Pole dances, endlessly, in a ball in faerie. She dances with the Gentleman, who has also taken an interest in Sir Walter’s butler, Stephen Black, who he promises to raise to Royalty. Lady Pole is exhausted and spiritless by day. She fights against sleep. She cannot explain what is happening to her, for her mouth can only speak ancient riddles. To the world of her day, Lady Pole is losing – has lost – her reason, and is being kept in increasing seclusion. She so rarely sees anyone new, though she does meet Arabella Strange.
Meanwhile, Strange has secured an interview with the dismissive Norrell, Drawlight and Lascelles. It doesn’t go well until Strange, an odd combination of diffidence and brashness, performs a piece of simple Magic. Norrell is transformed. It is not in the books. It is original Magic. Indeed, Strange cannot explain how he does it. But it is enough to have him taken on as apprentice.
Though Norrell’s ideas as to apprenticeship vary from anything Strange had imagined. It involves ten years of reading, without performance, a strict plan restricting many books until later, and in any event a reluctance to let Strange handle even the least book, even to read it!
And Strange is still in the position of the naïf, unable to understand why Norrell dismisses the Raven King, and refutes the value of Faerie Magic. Interestingly, whilst he cannot see the Gentleman when he is observing whilst invisible, Strange can sense a presence, can hear some of his words (the unflattering ones) as if echoing from next door.
But Norrell’s reclusive nature proves fateful when he is not available to handle an urgent tracking of a French ship. Strange succeeds admirably, to Norrell’s annoyance. Which is compounded when Strange is dragged down to Portsmouth Beach a second time, to rescue a ship run aground, Mr Norrell having a headache.
This time the magic is spectacular and visible, stallions created out of the sands who gallop out to sea and right the ship, much to the chagrin of the late-arriving Norrell. Suddenly, it is Jonathan Strange who is being lionised, and Strange who must be sent out to the Peninsula to direct Magical operations on the spot.
And Strange who must take no less than forty books of magic with him, much against the will of Mr Norrell. Leaving behind Arabella, who has attracted the attention of the Gentleman.
The plot thickens.