The Madness of Susanna Clarke, Fairy Princess

Do fairies exist? To steal us away, to cast curses, to impurify our bloodlines? Let’s say yes. We have artists, don’t we? Sensitive types, so fragile and retreating. The best of them seem touched by an otherness, an otherlandishness, of being. Maybe a small part of their humanity was bargained away without their knowing. A pinky finger. A left eyeball. That’s why they don’t stomp through the world as the rest of us do, very loudly. On those rare occasions when they’re seen to leave their homes, they sort of flicker—fairly float—across the way. Whatever you do, don’t startle the fairy-people, or you’ll scare them off. Just look at what befell Susanna Clarke.

Cover of Piranesi showing half human half goat figure playing instrument on a pillar
Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing

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In 2004, Clarke published what can only be described as her first dispatch from the land of Faerie. Ten years in the making and 846 (footnoted!) pages long, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was ethnography, lore. It was as if she’d been there, to England, at the time of Napoleon, when those two infamous magicians, the bookworm Norrell and his perky pupil Strange, tapped into unearthly powers to impress politicians, move mountains, and defeat the French. That’s not how it happened, you say? Why, yes it is. You simply haven’t read your hidden history.

The events that followed only proved Clarke’s preternatural pedigree. After the publication, in 2006, of The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, a collection of fairy tales written around the same time, and in the same world, as Strange & Norrell, Clarke went poof. Yumpy. Far, far away. For 14 years. The official story was debilitating mental illness—housebound, couldn’t write—but clearly her fairy patrons had come for her, to reclaim their erstwhile princess. Or else they meant to punish Clarke for her betrayal, for spilling their precious secrets, by enfuzzing her beautiful brain. Something like that. The ways and reasons of the Fae are little known to common folk.

If this strikes you as cutesy, tidy, annoying, even a bit disturbing, a romanticization or fancification of what sounds like a period of immense torture for Clarke and her loved ones, consider their own words. “It was as though she’d been captured into the land of Faerie, as if she had been taken away from us,” Clarke’s editor told New York magazine. Clarke herself, in a rare interview, told The New Yorker, “You really shouldn’t annoy fairies, or write about them—they don’t like it very much.” Given that Clarke has now released a second dispatch from Faerie, called Piranesi, which plunges far deeper than Strange & Norrell ever did into those forbidden fortresses from which the un-mad and mortal among us are forever barred, perhaps there’s no better explanation. Clarke has indeed been there and back again.

In Strange & Norrell, Clarke reports on the various ways an enterprising soul might make it to the fairy realm, which is located, difficultly, “behind the sky” and “on the other side of the rain.” Mirrors help, if you know the enchantment; if you don’t, make friends with an evil fairy king who desires your soul. Whatever it takes, because Faerie is the wellspring of magic, magic which seems to have trickled out of England sometime in the 1500s.

Three centuries later, Gilbert Norrell rolls up, bewigged and less than bemused, to bring it back. “To restore,” as he likes to put it, “English magic.” An obsessive-compulsive hoarder of arcane spellbooks, he alone possesses the know-how, until a young country woman demands of her dissolute boyfriend that he shape up and find a job. Thus Jonathan Strange becomes England’s second working magician. He and Norrell pass through stages of friendship and enemyship and eventually settle on something like frenemyship. Elder and upstart, conservative and liberal, scholar and seeker, loner and lover—they’re your classic dyad, two halves making a whole.

One irksome point of contention between these boys: Norrell won’t give Strange directions to Faerie, so Strange must hack together a DIY solution. It’s not pretty, this process, for it involves cooking a decrepit old cat lady down into the essence of her crazy. Tastes something unspeakable, but if fairies are “barely sane” by human standards, Strange reasons, then to reach them one must get, as it were, on their level. In the end, Clarke’s book really isn’t about the restoration of English magic. It’s about the restoration of English madness.

Madness, for Clarke as for so many of her fellow fairy-folk over the ages, confers certain compensations. “It used to be well known that when fairies hid themselves from general sight,” Clarke writes, “lunatics were often able to perceive them.” (Strange discovers this when the King of England, blind and batshit, makes effortless conversation with the fairy king.) The olden-time mages, she adds, “regarded madmen as seers and prophets and listened to their ramblings with the closest attention.” For all its agonies, madness awakens in its sufferers the gift of fairy sight, access to those deepest truths covered up by centuries of mannish toil and industry.