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August 20, 2007

Susanna Clarke's industrial revolution

I think this is a fairly obvious point, but I can't find it elaborated anywhere in the web: It seems to me that Susanna Clarke's very entertaining novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is an allegory of the Industrial Revolution. (Crooked Timber's John Quiggin sort of says so, but very briefly.)

In real life, steam-driven mass manufacturing was born in the North of England. The financial, human, and social capital came in part from old Northern cities like York. But York did not become a major manufacturing center--that was the fate of cities like Manchester and Sheffield, which basically sprang up in the early 1800s.

The Industrial Revolution began during the Napoleonic Wars when, for example, pulley blocks for British ships were mass produced. But new manufacturing techniques did not seem to alter the war profoundly. Meanwhile, the new techniques were being used to create specialized luxury goods, such as Wedgwood pottery. The use of steam power and interchangeable parts was still a gentleman's pastime and an interesting sideshow.

But these innovations expanded beyond anyone's control or expectations. Suddenly, factories that burned fossil fuels and used interchangeable parts were producing most of England's ordinary products (such as clothes); were employing a large proportion of the population; were threatening to enable mass human slaughter through deadly armaments and chemicals; and were changing the landscape itself--driving iron railroads across it and tearing the mountains open for coal.

[Spoiler warning: I reveal the conclusion of this very suspenseful novel below the fold.]

In Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, it is magic that is born (or reborn) first in the old city of York, among gentleman amateurs. Magic plays an amusing role in Wellington's Peninsula Campaign, but the outcome is the same as in history. Magic also amuses the London populace and entertains some gentlemen. But then suddenly it explodes beyond the control of a few amateurs and transforms both the social order and the landscape, especially in the North. Straight new roads open up; the countryside is turned upside down. The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair, a fairy who represents the decrepit old country order and green nature, is literally crushed under a different kind of nature made of rocks and minerals. A new regime begins, in which the child of slaves (i.e., the working class) promises to rule rationally and dispassionately. The small-scale, arbitrary cruelties of the pre-modern order are over, but no one knows whether the future will be bright or bleak.

I read the book more than a year ago, but I am confident that the analogy could be further substantiated with evidence from the text. I only recall one major difference between magic in the novel and steam power in real life. In the novel, magic is a medieval practice, reborn after a mysterious hiatus in the early-modern period. In real life, industrial manufacturing had some pre-modern antecedents--people mention tin-mining in Tudor Cornwall, for example. But basically it was new and "revolutionary," not a rebirth of anything. I can only assume that Clarke wanted to break the analogy with manufacturing for aesthetic reasons--her references to a lost medieval world are remarkably persuasive.

August 20, 2007 10:43 AM | category: fine arts | Comments


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