The Ladies of Grace Adieu, by Susanna Clarke

May 29, 2008

I had mixed feelings when I picked this up. On the one hand, I was very excited, because I loved Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. On the other hand, I was wary, because I loved Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

I won’t go into detail about what I liked about Strange & Norrell, as that’s enough for another post, but one of the main things that drew me into it was the sheer size of the book. If I remember correctly, it was about 800 pages long. Clarke’s writing, consciously antiquated, suited the length perfectly.

Because of that, I wasn’t sure whether I’d enjoy her short stories quite as much. I might be left wanting more out of a narrative, or it might feel shallow or rushed.

Luckily, my worries were completely unfounded. In retrospect, it did feel like I was reading particularly long footnotes from Strange & Norrell. I loved the footnotes in the original novel, though, so I didn’t have any problem with that whatsoever.

What I particularly enjoyed about this collection was the exploration of the world that we were presented in Strange & Norrell. At first I was somewhat disappointed that we weren’t going to be seeing much more of the two magicians, but that disappointment soon vanished. It’s clear that a lot of work has gone into the worldbuilding, and Clarke displays the various aspects of that world in this wonderful collection.

There are certain things that I didn’t mind, which may vex other readers. The antiquated spelling is back. In fact, it’s back with a vengeance in On Lickerish Hill–so much so, in fact, that it drove me up the wall. Consequently, it was the story I enjoyed least.

The one I enjoyed most of all was the opening tale, which gives this collection its title. There are various reasons for this; some of them are particular to this story, and some of them are true of the collection as a whole.

What I liked specifically about this story, was the way that it showed us a part of the world that was completely ignored in Strange & Norrell. The novel was concerned with magicians, and they are, by definition, male. Women were not supposed to get involved in magic. The three heroines in The Ladies of Grace Adieu ignore that, and wreak havoc in the most disturbing fashion.

I didn’t cotton on to what was happening till the end of the story, but when the penny did finally drop, I found myself feeling a little ill. It takes a fair bit for a story to unsettle me, but this one did it with hardly any perceiveable effort.

Another element particular to this story was an appearance by Jonathan Strange himself. He was one of the things that delighted me most about Strange & Norrell, so I was glad to see him back.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu also provides a wonderful showcase of the things that you can expect throughout the collection–an almost casual collision of the wonderful and the mundane, memorable characters, a subtle darkness, and a lovely writing style.

Well, I think the writing style is lovely. People who prefer Clancy to Dickens will probably disagree.

Another tale that stands out is The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse, which is about the Duke of Wellington misplaces his horse. It’s short but very effective, and had me smiling throughout. I do enjoy a story that has something difficult and meaningful to say about the human condition, but I also enjoy well-written snippets of pure fun, and this story is a prime example of the latter.

This collection is an ideal introduction into the world and style of Susanna Clarke. I know it took me a while to get into her novel, and I doubt I would have had such a rough ride through the first hundred pages if I’d been able to work my way through this collection first. If anyone is interested in magical realism and/or classic British fiction, I’d advise them to pick up The Ladies of Grace Adieu. It might be too fantastic for those used to Austen, and it might be a little too stuffy for those used to Austen, but it has a lot on offer to anyone who is willing to give it a go.

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