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This is a collection of short stories by Susannah Clarke, the author of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. They were published in various places between 1996 and 2004, during the ten years that it took to write the novel.
Born in Nottingham, Susannah Clarke spent her childhood moving frequently around the country as her father was a Methodist minister. She grew up reading Conan Doyle, Dickens and Jane Austen, whose influences are obvious (in a very positive sense) in her work. She gained a BA in Philosphy, Politics and Economics from Oxford in 1981, worked in publishing for a while, then spent a couple of years teaching English as a second language in Spain and Italy before returning to work as an editor of cookbooks for Simon & Schuster. It was during this time that she wrote both the novel and these short stories.
For those unfamiliar with her first novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a herculean book about magic, magicians, and rivalry, and also refers frequently to traditional folklore about fairies - not the pretty things at the bottom of the garden, but the Otherworlders, believed to exist in a parallel world to ours and to sometimes come and cause untold mischief. Her writing style is closer by far to Dickens and Austen than to Rowling, and is presented as an alternative history, with her fictional events so skilfully woven in with historical events and figures that you almost forget which world you're in. Her descriptions of places and characters bring them to life brilliantly well. These are not soppy love stories, but proper grown up intellectual fairy tales, with a good dose of dry wit to boot.
The author does refer to these stories as fairy tales, which indeed they are, and are a nice appendix of sorts to the novel. There are eight stories in the collection, and anyone who felt that Strange and Norrell was too long will be reassured to know that none is longer than 60 pages (at least in the hardback version!) It is illustrated by Charles Vess, a well-known graphic and fantasy artist from the States who specialises in illustrating myths and fairytales. His style is very similar to Victorian woodblock engravings, which is perfectly complemented by the hardback edition which is bound in grey linen with an embossed floral motif.
Here's a synopsis of the stories (and I'll keep them brief so as not to give away too much) :
THE LADIES OF GRACE ADIEU
The first story is the only one with a direct connection with the novel. Set in the era of the Napoleonic Wars (a period frequently used in her stories), the story concerns three ladies in the village of Grace Adieu in Gloucestershire, one of whom is soon to be engaged to the brother-in-law of Jonathan Strange. Unusually for women of their time they are very much interested in magic, although they think very little of celebrities Strange and Norrell who they see as staid and conservative. Mr Strange visits and during his time in the village discovers some quite unsettling things about the three friends, not the least of which involves two small parcels of what appear to be mouse bones...
ON LICKERISH HILL
Set in the 1600s and written in stylised Olde Englishe, this is a brief memoir by Miranda, Lady Sowreston, who has been taken as a wife by Sir John under false pretences. It is in fact a lively re-telling of the old traditional tale Tom Tit Tot, the English equivalent of Rumpelstilskin.
A curious tale of a young spinster whose beau, Captain Fox, is enchanted away by a mysterious benefactor in her absence. She follows clues to the woman's home, but each time she's at the door, something happens and she wakes up, injured, being cared for by her sister, and with no memory of the event whatsoever. But she is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery so back she goes again..
THE DUKE OF WELLINGTON MISPLACES HIS HORSE
A very short tale featuring the aforementioned Duke and his horse, a grumpy village, and a very useful pair of needlework scissors. You can read the story here:
MR SIMONELLI OR THE FAIRY WIDOWER
The journals of the Reverend Alessandro Simonelli of Allhope Rectory, Derbyshire, are recorded here to present some sort of explanation as to the discovery of his real parentage, and how he came to be secretly engaged to five sisters simultaneously.
TOM BRIGHTWIND OR HOW THE FAIRY BRIDGE WAS BUILT AT THORESBY
The longest story in this collection, it also has extensive footnotes (something which is also a prominent feature in Strange and Norrell) which can seem intrusive, especially when they take up more than half a page! It's the only one that I don't find satisfying, in that it takes a long time to get to the point, which is the building of the bridge - a lot of scene setting is done beforehand, during which to be honest I began to lose interest in the tale as a whole. The bridge-building itself is quite fascinating but happens so fast that you almost miss it.
ANTICKES AND FRETS
The explanation of the title is given at the end of this story:
"Antickes are grotesque figures. Frets are formal renaissance devices. Both are used in sixteenth century embroidery"
Set in 1500, the main character is Mary Queen of Scots, and centres on her imprisonment, needlework, and hopes for revenge. It's a clever tale, short but involving, and is actually uncharacteristically melancholic .
JOHN USKGLASS AND THE CUMBRIAN CHARCOAL BURNER
The final story is a lively tale of a simple man having his home and living destroyed by a passing Royal hunt, and his attempts to exact justice and revenge on the one who caused the most damage. The Raven King meets his match in the Patron Saints and a very determined charcoal burner!
I first read this collection not long after reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. To be honest at that point I found them a bit of a let down, as they felt a lot less involving, and maybe lacking a little imagination. However anything would seem inadequate after such a tour de force of fiction. After a fairly long break, re-reading them now I can feel a lot more atmosphere in the majority of them than I first found, and have enjoyed them immensely. I think that it might be a good plan in fact if you were thinking of embarking on the novel to get your head around these stories first, as they'd give you a pretty good grounding in her world and her style of writing. Definitely NOT chick-lit, and all the better for it!
The Ladies of Grace Adieu and other stories is written by the best selling and award winning author Susanna Clarke who wrote the critically acclaimed Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.
This book, the ladies of grace adieu, short stories/farie tales that contain tales of princesses, vengeful owls, ladies who embroider, paths in deep woods and strange houses. Many heroes and Heroines occur in the tales including The Duke of Wellington, Mary Queen of Scots, the Raven King, a Jewish Doctor and Jonathan Strange himself.
As her previous novel, Susannah Clarke writes with that same style that mirror Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. When compared to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, her more recent book contains less description of events and magic and focuses more on events and traditions.
The Book contains 8 short stories all varied in length and characters but they all occur in the same world, the magic world, as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Some of the characters that appeared as foot notes in her previous book are described in more detail her as well as their exploits.
The first tale is the title story, the Ladies of Grace Adieu. This story is the tale of 3 women that can carry out and perform magic. The story contains characters that many readers would have already met including Strange, Mrs Strange and her brother Henry Woodhope. Tale provides more insight into the life of the rector Henry Woodhope showing him look for a suitor for marriage.
This tale is a good starting point as it is similar to her previous novel and helps the reader to ease into the book. The tale is written in the accustomed style of Clarke and shows some of her humour and quick witted sense that I came to love in her previous story.
The second story in the collection is entitled On Lickerish Hill and tells the story of a mysterious hill where mysterious occurrences occur. This story introduces one of the main themes that re occur throughout the book of fairies. As this collection of stories is very much centered on those rather than magicians.
This story is again superbly written and introduces new characters and their customs and thoughts.
The third tale is Mrs Mabb and contains one of the occurring themes of marriage and suitors. I found this story rather long winded and dull, which was a shame after a promising start. The story just washed over me and i didn't really absorb it as well as I should. I didn't think that this tale had the Clarke spark that the previous ones contained.
The next story is called The Duke of Wellington misplaces his horse and is a very short story that can be read on Susanna Clarke's website. As the title suggest this story follows the previously met character the Duke of Wellington from her first novel. His prize horse, Copenhagen goes missing and enters the world of faerie. this novel in my opinion does contain that Clarke Spark as previously mentioned because this story contains what Clarke does best. She incorporates figures of good historical grounding into her works of literature and world of magic. This short story was one i thoroughly enjoyed.
The next story is called Mr Simonelli and is a totally different way of telling a story that Clarke had not used. The story is a collection of letters written by Mr Simonelli to a Mrs Gathercole whom he has an interest in her daughter. The story contains elements of magic in it through the Faerie that whisks some poor girl of to his mansion. As previously mentioned the marriage/love theme is evident also in this story.
this story was o.k but not as vividly recallable as previous ones. The story is quite long winded with no major events occurring. Perhaps after reading about other stories containing this element perhaps i found this theme tiresome.
The major thorn in this book however was the story entitled Tom Brightwind, How the Fairy Bridge was built at Thoresby. This was a long story that tells a boring story. Basically the clue is in the title, how a fairy built a bridge. This story is useful in providing insight into fairy folk lore and gives insight into how they view particular historical characters like Julius Caesar. But this was my least favourite story of the book due to its boring nature and very uneventful tale.
In contrast, the final 2 stories see Clarke return to her best. The penultimate tale called Antickes and Frets is a tale of Mary Queen of Scots and how she wanted revenge over her cousin Elizabeth. Again this is Clarke at her best intermingling prominent figures of history into her works of fiction. I found this tale very interesting and was rather annoyed that Clarke did not expand on this tale. In my opinion this story was the hidden gem in the book with wonderful descriptions and tales of events within this book.
The final story of the book refers to the Raven King John Uskglass and his meeting with a Cumbrian Charcoal Burner. This tale contained the quick wit and humour that Clarke can portray masterfully. The story combines religious events with magic. With the raven King being thwarted by a simple man who uses the Saints of he Christian church to help thwart Uskglass who has proved nothing but an irritant to him. A very interesting and amusing tale.
Overall my conclusion of the book is varied. There were parts of the book I really did enjoy and other parts where i felt like skipping onto the next story I was that bored. However when buying this book those who found Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell spell-bindingly good will probably adore this one. Those who were sat on the fence over her first novel will probably view his book in a similar way to what I did.
However the book is a good read for those few stories i enjoyed, the last 2 and the first couple.
Before you buy this book i recommend visiting her website and reading the Duke of Wellington's story and if you enjoy it then the book will be worth the buy.
Amazon as usually have the best most competitive prices, www.amazon.co.uk
Thanks for Reading.