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The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke
Now, where's that sequel?
Sunday 15 October 2006
Susannah Clarke's debut, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, was the product of more than a decade's writing and research. This is not its sequel. Instead, The Ladies of Grace Adieu is a stopgap volume of eight stories, all of which take place in the same imaginative world: a Britain riddled with gateways to fairyland, in which the practical magic of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance subsequently decayed, becoming the sole preserve of antiquaries and theoreticians until its revival by the magicians Strange and Norrell during the Regency.
Critical to the brilliance of Jonathan Strange was its wealth of footnotes, in which the supposed editor of the book elucidated and debated the text by reference to a vast body of fabricated magical history. In this collection, Clarke takes the conceit a step further: the book comes prefaced by an earnest introduction from the director of "Sidhe studies" at Aberdeen University, and its eight stories purport to provide "a sort of primer to Faerie and fairies".
This characteristically arch meta-fun shapes a disparate collection of tales that are, in effect, amplified footnotes to Clarke's first novel. But it also points up the virtues of the author's exuberant gift for pastiche, as the forms and narrative devices of English story across the centuries are brought in line with her alternative vision of the country's history. "On Lickerish Hill", the second story, is narrated by a 17th-century Suffolk bride whose husband has invited the antiquarian John Aubrey to stay at his country seat: it marries a delighted imitation of the Aubrey style ("Mr Meldreth, a sweet, shy gentleman the colour of dust, is for Insects and haz 237 dead ones in a box... Mr Foxton haz shewne by Irrefutable Arguments that Cornishmen are a kind of Fishe...") with a story of Rumpelstiltskinian enchantment. "Mr Simonelli, or the Fairy Widower", describes a young Cantabrigian divine's struggle with an amoral Faery nobleman in the creaking diary form of Bram Stoker; "John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner" is an anarchic medieval triumph-of-the-peasantry tale. The professorial editor comments darkly in a preface to "Tom Brightwind", a story of a fairy prince and a travelling Jewish doctor, that it "suffers from all the usual defects of second-rate early-19th-century writing", and at least two of the remaining stories employ the sardonic period register - by Dickens, out of Jane Austen - in which Clarke's debut was told.
Real fantasy die-hards, already possessed of Starlight, Stardust and the other collections in which these stories first appeared, may be disappointed by the lack of new material in The Ladies of Grace Adieu: only one of the pieces has not been published elsewhere. (It is, however, a very good one.) And those who found the meticulous Georgian atmospherics of her debut cold and empty will remain unseduced. Clarke's writing is gloriously unfashionable in its disdain for didacticism or the profundities of the so-called human condition. These are stories based on stories, full of wit and conversational shrewdness, for readers who relish the focus away from the human that fantasy and imagination provide. Gracefully and knowingly written, they provide highly entertaining sidelights to a fantastical landscape almost unrivalled in contemporary fiction. Now all we need is that sequel.
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