by Susanna Clarke



235pp/$23.95/October 2006

The Ladies of Grace Adieu
Cover by Charles Vess

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

In 2004, Susanna Clarke burst on the literary scene with her incredible debut novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. However, long before she took the world by storm, she had achieved fame and a following among fantasy readers with her all too rare appearances with short stories, beginning with "Stopp't-Clock Yard" in 1996.  While that story is not included in the current collection, eight others, including one previously unpublished, are.

Although "The Ladies of Grace Adieu" is notable for its introduction of the character Jonathan Strange and the world which featured in Clarke's novel, the story stands entirely on its own as it follows three young women, Cassandra Parbringer, Miss Tobias, and Mrs. Fields, as they live their lives in the village of Grace Adieu.  Interested in magic, although it is forbidden to women, they have the good fortune to meet Strange when he visits his brother-in-law in the village.  However, their interest in magic isn't entirely academic, although it is portrayed somewhat off stage, giving the story a genteel understated denouement.

"On Lickerish Hill" provides a clear demonstration that an author can take a tale known to everyone and make it their own.  Beginning with the folk tale of Tom Tit Tot (or, as it may be more widely known, Rumpelstiltskin), Clarke introduces her own sense of England and magic to the story, telling it in the first person of Miranda Sowreston.  Clarke also brings her own satirical look at philosophers and antiquarians to the story, by providing their almost entirely useless advice to Miranda and her husband.

"Mrs. Mabb" is a Victorian story in the vein of E.F. Benson's Mapp and Lucia stories.  In the small village of Kissingford, the young Venetia finds herself facing the formidable Mrs. Mabb for the heart of Captain Fox.  While the story starts out straightforward, it quickly becomes apparent that Venetia is either suffering from some form of dementia or there are strange forces protecting Mrs Mabb and keeping Venetia from reclaiming the Captain.  Clarke has a good sense of the period and writes in just the right light-hearted tone to make the story a success.

"The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse" is a short foray into the world of Faerie for the title character.  Visiting the small town of Wall, his arrogance and theft of a pair of scissars (sic) results in him entering a magical world.  There he finds a woman embroidering what appears to be his future.  The story is, in some ways, reminiscent of Robert Bloch's "Fane of the Black Pharoah," but while Bloch's character was merely the victim of fate, Clarke allows the Duke of Wellington to use his wits to save himself from the fate he sees depicted. 

An extract from the title character's journal forms the majority of the text of "Mr Simonelli or The Fairy Widower." Alessandro Simonelli is a poor country rector who has received an appointment to a position in the rectory of Allhope.  Upon arriving at his new home, he finds himself in the company of the lord of the manor, John Hollyshoes, who claims a relationship to Simonelli.  After delivering Hollyshoes's son (his wife dies in childbirth), Simonelli continues on to the village.  While part of the story focuses on Simonelli's establishment of himself in the village, the majority focuses on his relationship with Hollyshoes, who nobody in the village seems to know, and the lord's knowledge of Simonelli's background.  The journal entries build the mystery in a plausible and engaging manner until Simonelli and Hollyshoes eventually confront each other.

"Tom Brightwind, or, How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby" is set in the eighteenth century and follows a Jewish-Venetian doctor, David Montefiore, and his immortal fairy prince friend, Tom Brightwind, into a desolate English town.  The story is diverting, made even more interesting by the copious asides explaining fairy culture. One notable feature of the story is its use of copious footnotes.  Clarke.  When I asked Clarke about them during a 2004 interview, she commented, "I expected the publisher of this book to leave the footnotes out. So that, in a way, is why I put footnotes in 'Tom Brightwind.' I thought this is like a dummy run. Let's see what happens if I write a short story with footnotes. I wrote it and I sent it off and you don't hear from Patrick [Nielsen Hayden, the editor], and you don't hear from Patrick, and eventually you hear from Patrick, and he says "Yes, I'm buying it." I think now I'll wait to hear from him about the footnotes. I didn't hear anything, and I didn't hear anything, and eventually he just published it with the footnotes. When I saw him, I said, 'You never said anything about the footnotes.' He said, 'Oh, I just thought that was the typesetter's problem.'" (A Conversation with Susanna Clarke, Part I)

First published in The New York Times immediately following the release of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, "Antickes and Fret" is a story about Mary, Queen of Scots during her imprisonment by Queen Elizabeth.  Clarke shows Mary's need for vengeance against Elizabeth as well as her use of one of Mary's guardians Bess Hardwicke.  In the story, when Mary learns that Bess used magic to murder her first husband, Mary tries to gain Bess's arcane knowledge to further her own ambitions.

"John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner" is a story of an unlearned peasant who manages to get the better of a king. Adding to the topsy-turviness of the tale is the fact that the king, John Uskglass, who figured prominently in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a magician of unsurpassed power.  Despite this, the Charcoal Burner's prayers to the saints for a comeuppance to Uskglass for slights real or imagined, are taken by Uskglass to be magical powers wielded by the Charcoal Burner himself.  The humor in the piece is understated, but the Charcoal Burner's vengeance in nicely portrayed.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu Mr Simonelli or The Fairy Widower
On Lickerish Hill Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby
Mrs Mabb Antickes and Fret
The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner

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