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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Queerness in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL: REPLACE EVERY MENTION OF “MAGIC”/”MAGICIAN” WITH “HOMOSEXUALITY”/”HOMOSEXUAL” AND YOU MAKE ANY POTENTIAL READER INTO A GIGGLING MORON BECAUSE IT TURNS IT COMPLETELY INTO A SUBVERSIVE COMEDY --Tumblr user Drethelin
Susanna Clarke's 800 page doorstopper Jonathan Strange & Mister Norrell, a tale of two magicians who attempt to bring practical magic back to England during the time of the Napoleonic Wars, is getting made into a mini-series by the BBC.

This is great news, because it means more folks will get exposed to the book's weird and delightful mix between Regency romance and high society politics, historical accounts of a medieval and renaissance tradition of magic in an alternate England, and the strange and often unsettling or even horrific world of fairytales.

But unless some of the subtext within the book is toned down to a remarkable degree, it also means that we're going to have The Talk again within fandom culture about queer baiting and the presence or absence of queer characters within fantasy narratives. This isn't a bad conversation to have at all, of course, but it's sometimes difficult to pick through the particular contexts surrounding a text in order to really get at whether a text is... well, let's say ethical in its treatment (or lack of treatment) of queerness.

That's getting a bit ahead of things though, so let's talk a bit about Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, queerness, representation, and how context fiddles with our understanding.


Who Are These Two Gay Gentlemen?

So here's the deal with JS&MN:

The basic gist of the narrative, without giving too much away for folks that, oddly, haven't found the time yet to read all 800 pages of the novel (or who lack the arm strength to lift the book off the shelf), is that magic was widely practised in England till a few hundred years ago, when it started fading and gradually dwindled to nothing. "Magicians" are now historians--studying magic in the abstract and discussing the great feats of the past. This holds true until the accidental discovery of an actual practicing magician: Gilbert Norrell, a rather nasty piece of work all told who has spent the last few decades buying up all the books of magic he could find and hoarding them for personal study.

After his discovery, he's persuaded to go to London to aid in the war effort against Napoleon Bonaparte, who's currently ravaging the continent. He makes a name for himself after using magic to bring the young wife of a politician back to life (albeit at a terrible price which only Norrell knows) yet makes little progress on his ultimate goal of restoring English magic... that is, until a younger gentleman named Jonathan Strange becomes his apprentice.

Now, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell do not, it must be said, get along. Neither of them is very sociable and they both have their own personality quirks that put them dramatically at odds. (Norrell, in particular, is a right bastard to many of the characters in the book, Strange included.)

And yet, the two men constantly orbit around each other. From the moment of their introduction they are compelled by each other despite their mutual dislike. After their first meeting Strange complains to his wife Arabella about Norrell and remarks on this dislike, and Arabella, often one of the most sensible of the characters in the novel, replies:
"Not like you! No, perhaps he did not like you. But he did not so much as look at any other person the whole time we were there. It was as if he would eat you up with his eyes."
Arabella immediately perceives the contradiction of Gilbert Norrell: he's almost terrified of Strange and the threat he represents, but drawn to him all the same like a moth to a flame! He's deeply lonely (which Arabella also notes astutely) and Strange represents a companionship unavailable to the old bachelor. And Norrell is nothing if not jealous--possessive of books of magic, possessive of the course English magic shall take in the future, and possessively jealous of his pupil, unwilling to treat him as an equal but alarmed at the prospect of losing him. From the very beginning he is jealous of his pupil's other affairs ("'I only wish that he had not married... Magicians have no business marrying,'" Norrell remarks early in the apprenticeship) and Strange likewise thinks of very little after their first meeting but Norrell and his various faults.

When their tensions finally come to a head, resulting in a dramatic shattering of the partnership, it reads like nothing so much as a bad breakup. Before the really big blowup there's a great moment where Norrell is berating Strange for using a particular type of old and fairy-touched magic, complaining that such strange and mysterious sorcery will tarnish the reputation of English magic, and Strange replies that if the two "part company" then in the future Norrell need not worry about his reputation being tarnished by Strange. And:
"Mr Norrell looked very shocked. He glanced at Strange, glanced away again and muttered in a low voice that he had not meant that. He hoped Mr Strange knew he had not meant that."
I mean, it really feels to me like there's far more riding on this emotionally than just business or politics. Norrell is aghast at the thought of losing his pupil! And when Strange does the unthinkable, and publishes a public statement denouncing Norrell's plan for English magic (which expurgates the Fairy Realms and the dark king of the north, John Uskglass, the Raven King--the foundation, ultimately, on which English magic sits!) Norrell does not rage at him. Rather, they have a conversation which begins with this:
"You think that I am angry," said Mr Norrell, but I am not. You think I do not know why you have done what you have done, but I do. You think you have put all your heart into that writing and that every one in England now understands you. What do they understand? Nothing. I understood you before you wrote a word." He paused and his face worked as if he were struggling to say something that lay very deep inside him. "What you wrote, you wrote for me. For me alone."
Strange opened his mouth to protest at this surprizing conclusion. But upon consideration he realized it was probably true.
I mean, I really have to emphasize here how intense this conversation is. Norrell tells Strange at one point that if Strange leaves he won't be able to find anyone else to replace Norrell. He begs, he offers Strange access to his vast, hidden library, he promises that things will change... and ultimately Strange still walks away.

And it's so, so, so hard for me not to read a romantic subtext here because the intensity is just so strong, and they are so drawn to one another, so desperately, and they both do so poorly on their own, Strange almost immediately regretting his decision and Norrell devastated.

It's ok though because, without revealing too much, they end up together. Bound together. In a somewhat ironic fashion, all things considered.

The whole narrative, from the god damn title on down, is built around these two men and their contentious orbit around one another. One is a lifelong bachelor who seems to have very little interest in, or use for, women; the other a young gentleman who finds himself continually drawn to and repulsed by his mentor.

And yet, this remains subtext. Is there anything to it at all?

What If It's All In Your Head?

Well, it could be all in my head, let's say that up front. I've discussed before the fact that readers bring to a text information from their particular repertoire, and for me that repertoire has a significant queer component. And, as that last article suggests, I'm strongly in favor of reading queerness into the ambiguous space within texts, if only because it's bloody hard to get at otherwise!

I don't, therefore, think that there's anything troubling about the possibility that I'm, if you will, imagining things, because the fact of the matter is that reading a text is an act of imagining things continuously.

And I think it's reasonable to ask, of a text, that there be some effort made at representation. This is, after all, a book that includes among its roster of major characters several fairly capable women (whose ranks are dramatically expanded in the short story collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu) and a black servant who is one of the most courageous and goodhearted members of the cast. There's some effort made at representation of other sorts, in short, so why is there such a remarkable dearth of queer characters? Even Lord Byron, who actually appears as a character within the novel, is not really hinted to be anything other than a heterosexual womanizer.

No, I think ethically speaking the gods of interpretation are on my side on this one.

The question that I keep returning to, though, is how we should judge the text itself. It's not outrageous to read the text this way... but:

Is it problematic that the text itself fails to be more inclusive? To what degree?

Now. Normally I find compulsory heterosexuality quite frustrating. I'm not a big fan of queer-baiting, the practice of dangling the possibility of queerness before the audience in order to appeal to queer fans or to fans who support queer ships, only to constantly slide back into politically correct heteroerotic subtext. I stopped watching both Sherlock and Once Upon A Time because I was so sickened by their queer-baiting and their erasure in general of queer characters (special shoutout to Stephen Moffat for mocking fans who ship Watson and Sherlock while turning the lesbian on the show straight for Sherlock. You fucking pillock). So, this isn't something I take lightly.

And yet, I can't help but feel more sympathetic to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Part of this comes simply from the fact that... well... it kinda seems like maybe the Strange/Norrell ship wins in the end, in a weird sort of magical way. That helps a lot. It's the constant reintroduction of heteroeroticism in order to allay fears of errant queerness that ultimately pushes a text into queer-baiting territory for me.

But beyond that, I think to some extent it's the other signifiers within the text that make it different.

You may have noticed in the quotes above that Clarke is fond of archaic spelling and grammar patterns more in keeping with the 19th than the 21st century. That's quite deliberate on her part--the whole book is written very much in the vein of Dickens or Austen, and she describes the narrator as "a perfectly ordinary, nineteenth-century, all-seeing, all-knowing narrator." While omniscient, the narrator is gendered (female) and very clearly situated in time and space, in 19th century England.

This suggests an interesting possibility: there are a number of other mild subversive elements to the text that suggest to me a narrator writing somewhat against the grain of society. Mostly this manifests in the treatment of the black servant Stephen Black, the canny and independent John Childermass, and asides about the women in the lives of the two magicians. Might we not read the narrative of Strange and Norrell as being a subtle nod to queerness in the context of a restrictive society?

Now, I don't know that this lets Susanna Clarke off the hook entirely. After all, she ISN'T, ultimately, a 19th century English woman slash omniscient narrator. She's writing in the 21st century, and while I can, to some extent, understand her stated desire to write historical fantasy (let's call it) with an eye to the politics of the day, not the politics of our day, we aren't exactly starved for stories that portray a world without queers.

Still, if Clarke's primary objective was to take the politics of the period and use them as the backdrop for the restoration of English magic, I think she cannot be described as anything other than ludicrously, astonishingly successful.

And I will always, in my heart, know that Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and Arabella Strange are an adorable and totally canonical poly trio, and maybe in the end that's what matters.

But what about the show?

Oh yeah.

That.

Hoooboy.

So here's the thing about adapting JS&MR. The book is very, very wedded to the medium of print. Not only is it heavily reliant for its overall sense of time and place on the copious footnotes throughout the text, which often serve as entire self-contained fairy stories in their own right, it also depends upon that particular 19th century omniscient narrator voice.

The saving grace of JS&MR from the standpoint of queer visibility, let alone feminist and critical race/postcolonial concerns, is that the particular construction of the text encourages the reader to conceive of the text as being of a particular time and thus heavily influenced by the viability of particular political statements in that time period. Strip that away and I think that, for the audience, it becomes much more difficult to justify the way the narrative is divorced from present day political concerns. When the narrative is told through the medium of film, how easy will it be to encourage that acceptance, that stepping back into a different time and mindset?

I predict that the answer is "not very," at least for the increasingly vocal generation of media critics that lives on Tumblr, in particular. I think these questions are going to become quite prominent as the show airs, and boy am I ever not looking forward to the inevitable descent into stupidity as well-meaning and nuanced defenses of the text are swamped by straight up homophobes denouncing people for daring to read queerness into their pure, unsullied story. I mean, the same god damn thing happened with MLP, it happened with Sherlock, it happened with... well, actually I don't think I've seen it happen with Adventure Time because honestly who DOESN'T ship Bubblegum and Marceline? Besides the executive producers I mean. Are there any non-lizard people who don't ship Bubblegum and Marceline? Whatever, the point is, it's happened before, and it'll happen again, and I bet it's going to happen with this.

I think what makes me most hesitant though about the possibility of adaptation is the sense in the text of what Jo Walton memorably described as "the numinous"--I'm still trying to understand what exactly Walton means by that, and what the potential within this book is, and how it is reflected in the fact that most scholarly discussion of the book comes from journals on Gnostic Christianity, and mystic religious traditions. There's a sense here of touching something vastly beyond the scope of human knowledge, something that in the hands of Lovecraft would lead to gibbering madness but in the hands of Clarke leads to a sense of humility paired with a sense of connection to the vastness of the world.

There is a suggestion at points within the text, and a far more explicit statement in The Ladies of Grace Adieu, that Strange and Norrell ultimately practice a very masculine, upper class, respectable magic that has very little to do with the true, wild magic that was born when John Uskglass, the Raven King, the Nameless Slave, made a pact with the sky, and the stones, and the rivers of England, when he wrote his magic in the rocks and in black branches against the cloudy air.

I think, with that in mind, there might be another saving grace to the way in which Clarke suppresses queerness, and feminism, and race, and class concerns within the text, because ultimately they do bubble up uncontrollably. English magic is written in rocks and branches and it belongs to everyone, and the bearers of English magic ultimately are women and servants and former slaves, not Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

I'm not optimistic about the ability of a tv miniseries to capture such a sensibility.

But if they can... boy, wouldn't that be something grand?

Follow stormingtheivory.tumblr.com for updates, random thoughts, artwork, and news about articles. As always, you can e-mail me at KeeperofManyNames@gmail.com. Circle me on Google+ at gplus.to/SamKeeperIf you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave some thoughts in the comments below.

1 comment:

  1. Hi,

    I just wanted to let you know I linked this from my JS&MN re-read post today. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete

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