Literary Corner Cafe

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Book Review - The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susannah Clark - A Primer on the World of Faerie

Anyone who read and loved Susanna Clarke’s award winning novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is likely to find himself both enchanted and charmed by the stories contained in The Ladies of Grace Adieu.

To begin with, the actual book itself is gorgeous, but in a whimsical, rather than a pretentious, manner. The hardcover edition is embossed rather than jacketed, in shades of black and grey, and decorated with vivid pink petunias. Inside, the paper is thick and creamy, and interspersed among the pages of the book’s eight stories are twenty-two equally charming and whimsical black and white illustrations by Charles Vess.

Seven of the eight stories contained in The Ladies of Grace Adieu have been previously published and date from 1996 to 2004. The final story in the collection, “John Uskglass and the Charcoal Burner,” is the only new addition. All of the stories were new to me, however, and I found all of them to be thoroughly enchanting.

In keeping with the arch tone of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, the collection opens with a fictitious, though very believable, foreword, ostensibly written by one James Sutherland, the Director of Sidhe (Faerie) Studies at the University of Aberdeen. Whether fictitious or not, Professor Sutherland would appear to be the perfect person to have collected these lovely stories into one volume. His aim, he tells us, was two-fold:

The first is to throw some sort of light on the development of magic in the British Isles at different periods; the second is to introduce the reader to some of the ways in which Faerie can impinge upon our own quotidian world, in other words to create a sort of primer to Faerie and fairies.

And, as promised by Sutherland, all of the eight stories are related in some way to the world of Faerie. All take place in a Britain with more gateways to Faerie than one could have possibly have imagined – or wanted. And all involve the difficulties human beings face when they wittingly or unwittingly encounter the creatures we know, but may not recognize, as fairies.

The fairies in The Ladies of Grace Adieu are the same ones encountered in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, at times, deceptively charming, at other times, downright dangerous and sadistic. And, as Professor Sutherland points out in his foreword, these eight stories demonstrate “the appalling unpreparedness of the average nineteenth-century gentleman when he accidentally stumbled in Faerie.”

The collection is framed by stories featuring characters from the magnificent Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. The opening story, “The Ladies of Grace Adieu,” takes place in Grace Adieu, a little fictional village in Gloucestershire, the parish of Henry Woodhope, the brother of Arabella Strange. And, although Arabella doesn’t make an appearance in this story, her husband, Jonathan Strange, does.

The ladies in question are Mrs. Field and her ward, Miss Cassandra Parbinger, two women who visit, with noticeable regularity, Miss Tobias, the governess at Winter’s Realm. (Winter’s Realm being Grace Adieu’s great house.)

While most of the village assumes Mrs. Field and Miss Parbinger are visiting Winter’s Realm to spend time with the two orphaned children under Miss Tobias’ care, we learn this isn’t exactly the case:

It was said that the great-grandfather of these children had studied magic and that he had left behind him a library. Miss Tobias was often in the library and what she did there no one knew. Of late her two friends, Mrs. Field and Miss Parbinger, had also been at the house a great deal. But it was generally supposed that they were visiting the children. For ladies (as everyone knows) do not study magic. Magicians themselves are another matter – ladies (as everyone knows) are wild to see magicians.

When two gentlemen make a visit to Winter’s Realm, bringing with them a strange and weary young woman, the story takes a very dark and sinister turn and even Jonathan Strange, himself learns something new and surprising about the kind magic that can be wrought by women.

The final story in the book, “John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner,” the only one written specifically for this volume, features yet another character from Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell – John Uskglass, of course. This, too, is a dark tale, as Uskglass is punished and tormented, however it lacks the sinister quality found in the other seven stories.

The second story, “On Lickerish Hill,” is one most readers are either going to love or heartily dislike. It’s written in a very old, rustic dialect that can be charming and whimsical in small doses, but highly annoying and difficult in larger ones.

“On Lickerish Hill” is narrated by a seventeenth-century Suffolk bride whose husband has invited the antiquarian and writer, John Aubrey to stay at his country home. I found this story enchanting and thought Clarke did an excellent job of imitating Aubrey’s 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…

Another favorite of mine was “Mr. Simonelli or the Fairy Widower,” no doubt the darkest and creepiest story in the book. In this story, a diary tale written in the tradition of Bram Stoker, Alessandro Simonelli, who thinks he’s Italian but is actually part fairy, seeks to protect the women of his village from the diabolical schemes of his fairy kinsman, John Hollyshoes.

Other stories focus on the Duke of Wellington, Mary, Queen of Scots, a magical bridge built by fairies, and a young woman determined to wrest the soul of the man she loves from a demented fairy woman. Clarke even manages to show us that the simple and genteel act of embroidery can have serious consequences when Faerie intervenes.

Clarke’s writing in these stories is just as wonderful as it is in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, though of course, the shortness of the stories causes it to lose its Dickensian touch. Her arch Austenesque wit, however, is still very much in evidence, especially when she turns her gaze to the domestic scene:

Mr. Hawkins said nothing; the Hawkins’ domestic affairs were arranged upon the principle that Fanny supplied the talk and he the silence.

She also gives, as one reviewer has said, “filigree attention to detail,” such as shown in Fanny Hawkins’ ambiguous directions to Mrs. Mabb’s home:

Beyond the hill there is a little green valley and then an ancient wood. Mrs. Mabb’s house stands betwixt the stones and the wood, but nearer to the wood than the stones.

In the end, people looking for a sequel to Jonathan and Strange and Mr. Norrell won’t find it in The Ladies of Grace Adieu. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was a big, sprawling, multi-layered masterpiece, as rich as a seven course gourmet meal. While the stories in The Ladies of Grace Adieu are written in the same mannered tone, they have a much lighter touch. And this is exactly as it should be. No short story could contain the panorama and energy of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

Readers should approach the short stories contained in The Ladies of Grace Adieu for what they are – short stories, and enjoy them for their own sake, not compare them to Strange and Norrell, for that would be very unfair and it would also be selling the stories short.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu is “must” reading for anyone who loved Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or for readers in love with the world of Faerie. These are stories that are enchanting, graceful, whimsical, and dark. Stories that are everything we’ve come to expect from a writer as good as Susanna Clarke. Stories that, in the end, reflect the very essence of Faerie, itself.


Recommended: Definitely, to lovers of fantasy and those interested in the world of Faerie.

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