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The real world of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Susanna Clarke’s bestselling novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a very clever evocation of a particular period in English history when the country was at war with Napoleon’s France and the metropolis thrummed with prophets and dissenting voices. But Clarke’s version of history also has a magical twist. Some reviewers of the first episodes of the current BBC1 adaptation have dismissed it is over-blown fantasy, even childish, yet Clarke’s characters are only once removed from the very real magical world of early nineteenth-century England. What few readers or viewers realise is that there were magicians similar to Strange and Norrell at the time: there really were ‘Friends of English Magic‘, to whom the novel’s Mr Segundus appealed in a letter to The Times.

If we rummaged a little harder among the magazines and periodicals, such as The Friends of English Magic and The Modern Magician, that littered Jonathan Strange’s library, we might also uncover old copies of the Conjuror’s Magazine, or, Magical and Physiognomical Mirror, which was published in 1792-93. Amongst the books in Mr Norrell’s library we would surely find an edition of Ebenezer Sibly’s A New and Complete Illustration of the Celestial Science of Astrology, a popular guide to the occult sciences that saw its twelfth edition published in 1817, the year in which Clarke’s novel ends. A Freemason and astrologer, Sibly (1751-c.1799), was the most famous English occultist of his time. One can imagine Mr Norrell sitting by the fire in heated argument with Ebenezer Sibly over the boundaries between beneficial and iniquitous forms of magical practice, and its national importance.

Norrell would undoubtedly have had regular correspondence with the influential occult bookseller John Denley. During the early nineteenth century Denley’s London antiquarian bookshop brought together the most comprehensive collection of magic books and manuscripts outside of the British Library, Oxford and Cambridge – and Norrell’s library, of course. Denley’s magicians’ paradise was frequented by the likes of Coleridge and the young novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. It was the centre of London’s magic scene.

A frequent visitor to Denley’s shop was a young man named Francis Barrett, an artist and experimental chemist. He would have undoubtedly featured in the now lost The Life of Jonathan Strange (London: John Murray, 1820). We know little about Barrett’s life, and much of what we do know comes from newspaper reports of his exploits as an early experimenter with balloon flight. Jonathan Strange would have made the ideal companion as Barrett careered around the countryside from one ballooning disaster to another. Barrett is now best known now for his tome The Magus: Or Celestial Intelligencer (1801). It was a practical guide to ritual magic, which drew primarily from seventeenth-century books of magic, and was heavily influenced by Sibly’s published work. Barrett’s stated aim was ‘to free the name of Magic from any scandalous imputation; seeing it is a word originally significative not of any evil, but of every good and laudable science, such as a man might profit by, and become wise and happy.’

Barrett gave private tuition on the magical arts, and one of his pupils was a Lincolnshire cunning-man named John Parkins. When this rural magician returned to his home near Grantham he set up a Temple of Wisdom, and began publishing a series of divinatory, herbal and magical texts. In 1812 we find Strange using his magic in the service of Lord Wellington, and that same year Parkins advertised a lamen or talisman for military and naval officers in his Cabinet of Wealth, or the Temple of Wisdom. ‘God Save the King, and Defend this Nation!’ He declared. Parkins’ lamen would ‘not only powerfully protect and defend the British Army and Navy in all those times of the greatest danger, but also give them the most complete victory over all enemies, both foreign and domestic.’

So when you watch the next episode of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, spare a thought for those very real friends of English magic: Sibly, Barrett, Denley, and Parkins.

Featured image credit: Magic Library. Public domain via Pixabay.

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  1. […] of Francis Barrett, an early 19th century magician, Hockley also worked in the noted bookshop of John Denley.  By the mid-19th century, he was one of a growing band of educated individuals practically […]

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