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Norrell and Strange author writes short stories shock!
The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories - Susanna Clarke
Member Name: melinda3536
The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories - Susanna Clarke
Date: 09/02/10, updated on 11/11/13 (45 review reads)
Advantages: Great introduction to the author's style, enjoyable tales
Disadvantages: One story may let the overall flow down
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!
Summary: Well worth reading if you like intelligent fantasy