By the author of “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” and “Piranesi”, these eight short stories are a combination of stories set in the world of “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” as well as some fairy tales that readers will find familiar, though reworked in the author’s own style. It’s a highly entertaining group of stories for fans of fairy tales and fantasy.
The title story is a tale from the world of Jonathan Strange, as Strange himself is a character. While this alternative Regency England, true to the patriarchal notions of the time, insisted that magic was the realm of men, Strange in the novel discovers through his own experiences that there have been women practising magic just as successfully. In this story he meets three of them, and their rather grim solution to a problem involving danger to two small children. It is hard to find fault with them – they could not have resolved the situation legally and the girls were at definite risk. Strange is rather horrified when he realises what they have done, but they are not inclined to be very interested in his opinion, pointing out that he writes a lot of opinions on magic that he doesn’t even believe himself, just to keep on Norrell’s good side and suit the establishment. As one of the women says:
You are no match for us, for we three are quite united, while you, sir, for all your cleverness, are at war, even with yourself. If ever a time comes when your heart and your head declare a truce, then I suggest you come back to Grace Adieu and then you may tell us what magic we may or may not do.
I really like that there is no hint of romanticism about the three witches. They are in every respect proper ladies of the time, who are also witches, and who manage their affairs without involvement with the ‘great’ magicians of the kingdom. I love them. (Also, the name of the village is rather good – Grace Adieu, Grace Goodbye, perhaps? It is, in itself, an indication that the women don’t act by anyone else’s grace or favour, but in their own right and will.)
The second story, “On Lickerish Hill”, is a bit of a satire, I think. It’s a version of the Rumpelstilskin story on the face of it. However, what amused me the most about this is the depiction throughout of people with so-called education. From the doctor the heroine and her husband consult (who apparently gets his diagnoses from the Angel Gabriel), to the scholars who come to cheer the husband up (who are more interested in living free on someone else’s dime) to the heroine Miranda’s own supposed education (she refers to fairies as ‘Pharisees’ throughout), the end result would indicate that there is not much intelligence to go along with the education these people have received, leading to a great deal of misunderstood information.
Irishmen have tailes near a quarter of a yard longe (as I thinke is commonly known) but I never hearde before that Pharisees have them.
The story is being told by Miranda, and the interesting spelling seems to be her way of sounding educated when she really doesn’t understand much of anything. The husband is a bully and a thug, going around fighting with everyone, drowning puppies and threatening his wife with murder. Miranda is quite open that she married her husband for the lifestyle it gives her. In the end, by a little bit of planning and a great deal of good luck, she manages to overcome her problems, and continues with her life. I found this story to be quite funny as a result of all the strange behaviour of each character. No one seems to be intelligent here (including the fairy).
“Mrs Mabb” starts out as a story of a young woman whose young man has (apparently) decided to dump her for another woman. Only it ends up being so much more. The title character’s name, is, of course, taken from the fairy-tale character Queen Mab, queen of the fairies. The heroine, Venetia, is told that her lover has deserted her for this other woman, but there seems to be something very odd about the whole thing. Venetia makes a few attempts to go to Mrs Mab’s house, but she’s always being told it’s in a different location, and then ends up losing memory of events and being found in a bedraggled state. Mrs Mab is a fairy, and the story is a traditional trope of the fairy lover bewitching the man, though in this case told from the point of view of the spurned woman who fights to get him back. I enjoyed this story immensely. Venetia, once she finally works out what is happening, is quite clever about getting her lover back:
“Now I have you, Mrs Mabb,” she whispered.
She took a scrap of paper and folded the broken butterflies up inside it. Upon the outside she wrote “For Mrs Mabb”.
When the young man is finally restored to her, the reader has to wonder why she made such a fuss as he does appear to be something of a dope. However, Venetia wants him and so they get their happily ever after, quite unlike the way these fairy enchantment stories usually end ie badly for the man.
There are eight short stories in total in this collection, and they all combine fairy-tales, history, and Clarke’s own world that she established in “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” to create a very enjoyable read. I would recommend this to any lover of fairy-tales.