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Susanna Clarke’s 2004 historical fantasy novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has been adapted into a seven part television series by Peter Harness, currently airing on BBC One and BBC America. John Reppion plucks out some of the more easily disentangled fragments of folklore, magic, and the like from the book (and the show) and takes a closer look at them.

All posts in this series:

IV – Magic and Madness

“I am not at all surprised that you could not help His Majesty,” said Mr Norrell. “I do not believe that even the Aureate magicians could cure madness. In fact I am not sure that they tried. They seem to have considered madness in quite a different light. They held madmen in a sort of reverence and thought they knew things sane men did not –things which might be useful to a magician. There are stories of both Ralph Stokesey and Catherine of Winchester consulting with madmen.”

“But it was not only magicians, surely?” said Strange. “Fairies too had a strong interest in madmen. I am sure I remember reading that somewhere.”

“Yes, indeed! Some of our most important writers have remarked upon the strong resemblance between madmen and fairies. Both are well known for talking without sense or connexion.”

Talking without (seeming) sense or connection, in the world of Strange & Norrell, is one effect of what is referred to only as a “muffling spell” – an enchantment signified by a phantom rose at the mouth of the subject (to those magically inclined enough to see it). The apparent nonsense spoken by those thus enchanted in the book and television series proves, in fact, to be old Fairy and Folk Tales which, though unrelated to what the person is trying to say, are nevertheless coherently told. So it is that those who have had a muffling spell cast upon them may appear insane but not (necessarily) be so. Clearly, this can be read as a metaphor for depression, and any number of mental health conditions in which the sufferer feels unable to articulate their problems, or is unable to imagine them being understood (or taken seriously) if they do so.

Madness and otherness are themes that run throughout Strange & Norrell. In one footnote we are given a note on the thoughts of Richard Chaston (1620-95), an author who the practical magician Mr. Gilbert Norrell agrees with (on this matter, at least):

Chaston wrote that men and Fairies both contain within them a faculty of reason and a faculty of magic. In men reason is strong and magic is weak. With fairies is the other way round: magic comes very naturally to them, but by human standards they are barely sane.

Here then, magic seems to be the very opposite of reason, but does that make it madness?

In Clarke’s world fairies and Faerie may seem at first to be the opposite of Englishmen and England but, in fact, (as Chanston hints) they prove to be more like mirror images of the same; their characteristics merely inverted.

Strange & Norrell draws on various Romantic literary traditions and is set during the Romantic Era – an era when England was itself ruled over by “mad” King George III. The self-elected poster-boy of Romanticism Lord Byron was infamously described as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” by Lady Caroline Lamb; a phrase which has become synonymous with hell-raising, raucous, rebellious behaviour ever since. Madness then, was and is an important part of the Romantic aesthetic.

Poets cultivated the association among insanity, eccentricity, and genius in their life-styles and their work to distinguish themselves from the philistine public and from writers of lesser talent. […] Two general reasons for the prevalence of genuine and feigned madness in this period were the increased acceptability of public displays of emotion and the cult of the genius poet. [1]

Yet while Byron’s madness may have been something of an affectation, other poets such as William Blake, and Friedrich Hölderlin did unquestionably struggle with their mental health (the latter almost certainly being schizophrenic). Another was John Clare, the “Peasant Poet” from Northampton, who was in and out of asylums for much of his adult life.

In 1837 he was admitted to Dr Allen’s High Beech asylum near Epping and was reported as being “full of many strange delusions”. He thought he was a prize fighter and that he had two wives, Patty and Mary [a girl Clare fell in love with as a boy but who, in reality, he seems to have never had any actual relationship with]. He started to claim he was Lord Byron. There is an interesting letter that Dr Allen wrote about Clare to The Times in 1840:

It is most singular that ever since he came… the moment he gets pen or pencil in hand he begins to write most poetical effusions. Yet he has never been able to obtain in conversation, nor even in writing prose, the appearance of sanity for two minutes or two lines together, and yet there is no indication of insanity in any of his poetry.

An interesting picture of Clare during [his time at Northampton Asylum circa 1860] comes from the asylum superintendent, Dr Nesbitt, who wrote of his condition:

It was characterised by visionary ideas and hallucinations. For instance he may be said to have lost his own personal identity as with the gravity of truth he would maintain that he had written the works of Byron, and Sir Walter Scott, that he was Nelson and Wellington, that he had fought and won the battle of Waterloo, that he had had his head shot off at this battle, whilst he was totally unable to explain the process by which it had been again affixed to his body. [2]

Clare’s own affliction apparently working as the mirror opposite of the muffling spell of Clarke’s world – him being able to speak with absolute clarity and mastery through one medium alone. The madman as genius in his single field of specialisation.

In a paper published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine in 2001, Allan Beveridge wrote the following:

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, two major factors contributed to the awakening interest in the art of the insane—the Romantic movement, which identified madness as an exalted state allowing access to hidden realms; and the emergence of the asylum, which provided a location for the production of patient-art. Romanticism saw madness as a privileged condition: the madman, unrestrained by reason or by social convention, was perceived as having access to profound truths. The Romantics emphasized subjectivity and individualism, and hailed the madman as a hero, voyaging to new planes of reality. Although the equation of madness and genius originated with Plato, it was only in the nineteenth century that it became an important feature of cultural discourse. From the proposition that the genius was a kind of madman it was logical to ask whether the mad themselves create works of genius. [3]

The art of the insane, along the art of children, and the “primitive” art of other cultures, were studied and admired by the likes of the Expressionists and the Surrealists. To them such art represented an absolute break from the conventions of western formalism – from the established etiquette and symbolism of art as it stood (just as the wild magic of fairies contrasts with Mr. Norrell’s controlled, formalised English Magic). In the first Surrealist Manifesto, André Breton, the leading theorist of the movement, wrote:

The confidences of madmen: I would spend my life in provoking them. They are people of a scrupulous honesty, and whose innocence is equalled only by mine.

A quotation worthy of Lord Byron himself in terms of its apparent pomposity.

One cannot write of magic, madness, fairies, and art and not include the tragic, talented Richard Dadd.

Richard Dadd was born August 1, 1817 in Chatham, Kent, England. At age 13 the family moved to London, and in 1837, Dadd, age 20, was admitted to the Royal Academy of Art. Dadd showed talent at the Academy and gathered a number of painterly friends, known collectively as ‘The Clique’. He won several awards while at the Academy, and began exhibiting his work during his first year.

In 1841, he received a commission to do the woodblock illustrations for a book called the Book of British Ballads, as well as an oil painting called Titania Sleeping, which is perhaps the best example of his early work. Overall, his style was not particularly remarkable, no more so than any other moderately gifted painter in Victorian England during the stylistic phase now referred to as “The Fairy School”. [4]

In 1842 Richard Dadd set out on the not-yet-quite-out-of-fashion Grand Tour (of Europe and the Middle East) with Sir Thomas Phillips, who had employed the artist to document his travels. All went well until the duo reached Egypt where Phillips and others believed that Dadd must have caught sunstroke. Dadd himself was under a rather different impression however, namely that he had been possessed by the ancient Egyptian God Osiris. Osiris is the God of the afterlife, of the dead, and, perhaps crucially, of the underworld (the connections between Hades, Hell, the classical underworld, and Faerie having already been discussed in part previously).

Upon his return to England Richard was clearly changed and troubled. He was taken by his family to rural Kent for a bit of rest, relaxation, and recuperation. There, in August 1843, Dadd took a knife and murdered his father, who he now believed was not his father at all but a supernatural double (a “fetch”, or a “waff”, as some might say). Richard fled the country but was arrested just outside Paris when he attempted a second murder, this time with a straight razor. Dadd confessed to killing his father and was returned to England, where he was committed to the criminal department of Bethlem psychiatric hospital, better known to many as Bedlam.

The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke

In Bedlam (and later in the equally infamous Broadmoor Hospital where he died in 1886) Richard Dadd was encouraged to continue with his painting. His artwork was, as is perhaps to be expected, somewhat changed (“possess[ing] a strange compelling quality absent from the work he completed when sane“, according to Beveridge[5]) but it was no less wonderful. So wonderful in fact that in 1855 the then Head Steward at Bedlam, George Henry Haydon, asked Dadd if he would paint a picture for him. Dadd spent nine years on the painting – a canvass measuring a mere 54 x 39.5 cm (21 x 15.5 inches) – which, though it remained unfinished in his eyes, now hangs in London’s world famous Tate Gallery. The painting (shown above) is entitled The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke and is described on the Tate website thusly:

With the exception of Shakespeare’s Oberon and Titania, who appear in the top half of the picture, the figures are drawn entirely from the artist’s imagination. The main focus of the painting is the Fairy Feller himself, who raises his axe in readiness to split a large chestnut which will be used to construct Queen Mabs’ new fairy carriage. In the centre of the picture the white-bearded patriarch raises his right hand, commanding the woodsman not to strike a blow until the signal is given. Meanwhile the rest of the fairy band looks on in anticipation, anxious to see whether the woodsman will succeed in splitting the nut with one stroke.

The magician-like figure of the patriarch wears a triple crown, which seems to be a reference to the Pope. Dadd saw the Pope during a visit to Rome in 1843 and was apparently overcome by an urge to attack him. Although the patriarch may be interpreted as a father figure, the tiny apothecary, brandishing a mortar and pestle in the top right of the picture, is in fact a portrait of the artist’s father, Robert Dadd. [6]

Yes, Dadd’s father was depicted by the artist among the fairies.

Dadd's dad put to work in Faerie

In the very first issue of the Tate magazine, Tate Etc, published in May 2004 (four months before Strange & Norrell), the German Capitalist Realist painter and photographer Sigmar Polke (1941–2010) wrote a piece on Dadd’s Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke entitled “Private View“. While I do not pretend to be familiar with Polke, either as a painter or a writer, there are nevertheless perhaps some insights to be gained from an artist’s perspective on Dadd and his master-work. Here are a couple of choice quotations from the piece:

I’ve known Richard Dadd’s The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke 1855–64 since the 1970s. When I look at it again today, it’s as if I were looking into a tapestry and losing my way. Its composition is quite unlike any other Victorian fairy painting. The point of view is not clearly defined. Instead, the individual elements appear to be linked by almost invisible forces.

At that time, the fantasy life of fairies – from Grimm to Shakespeare – enjoyed widespread popularity as an imaginary world fully integrated into reality. Dadd’s appropriation of this world is, however, neither kitsch, nor facile, nor garrulous, because it does not obey the then current pictorial conventions. Nor does his vision echo the spirited confections of popular draughtsman J.J. Grandville’s fantastic book Un Autre Monde 1844. Instead, one senses the extraordinary intensity of an enduring dialogue between the artist and the universe of figures that he created. Isolated from the outside world, he painted the picture for the director of the hospital. Did he perhaps want to present it as proof of his sanity?

A strange idea; attempting to prove one’s sanity by creating a hyper-realistic representation of Faerie.

In the final paragraph Polke talks briefly about Dadd’s madness but in place of a conclusion to the piece there is, instead, a rather curious quotation.

One more curlicue, a whorl, my coda follows in the form of an ancient Celtic saying:

A city lasts three years,
A dog outlives three cities,
A horse outlasts three dogs,
A person outlives three horses,
A donkey outlives three people,
A wild goose outlives three donkeys,
A crow outlives three wild geese,
A hart outlives three crows,
A raven outlives three harts,
And the Phoenix outlives three ravens. [7]

I have not been able to find the source of the quotation and I’m left wondering exactly what Polke was trying to communicate, and whether he was freely able to do so.

In Strange & Norrell madness and magic may not be the same thing but they are bedfellows nonetheless; each having some bearing and effect upon the other. Even so…

There were remarkably few spells for curing madness. Indeed he had found only one, and even then he was not sure that was what it was meant for. It was a prescription in Ormskirk’s Revelations of Thirty-Six Other Worlds. Ormskirk said that it would dispel illusions and correct wrong ideas. Strange took out the book and read through the spell again. It was a peculiarly obscure piece of magic, consisting only of the following words:

“Place the moon at his eyes and her whiteness shall devour the false sights the deceiver has placed there.
Place a swarm of bees at his ears. Bees love truth and will destroy the deceiver’s lies.
Place salt in his mouth lest the deceiver attempt to delight him with the taste of honey or disgust him with the taste of ashes.
Nail his hand with an iron nail so that he shall not raise it to do the deceiver’s bidding.
Place his heart in a secret place so that all his desires shall be his own and the deceiver shall find no hold there.
Memorandum. The colour red may be found beneficial.”

However, as Strange read it through, he was forced to admit that he had not the least idea what it meant.

Read on to Part V: The Raven King


[1] Laura Dabundo (2009) Encyclopedia of romanticism: culture in Britain, 1780s-1830s
[2] http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/healthadvice/bookreviews/books/johnclare/review1.aspx
[3] Allan Beveridge (2001) “A disquieting feeling of strangeness?: the art of the mentally ill” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1282252/
[4] http://www.popsubculture.com/pop/bio_project/richard_dadd.html
[5] Allan Beveridge (2001) “A disquieting feeling of strangeness?: the art of the mentally ill” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1282252/
[6] http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/dadd-the-fairy-fellers-master-stroke-t00598/text-summary
[7] Sigmar Polke (2004) “Private View” http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/tate-etc-issue-1