Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Faeries and Englishmen

Currently I am reading The Ladies of Grace Adieu, a collection of short stories by Susanna Clarke. Clarke is the author of Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell, an engrossing novel set in the same period of 19th century England. The language of both books is an impressively faithful reconstruction of Austen's day, and there were many times while reading Jonathan Strange when I forgot it was a modern novel and was momentarily surprised by the modern themes of feminism and race. She weaves magic into historic events (the Duke of Wellington is a prominent figure during the Napoleonic Wars and engages a magician's assistance, resulting in a clever myth about the Battle of Waterloo). Her fairies are powerful, amoral, and frightening. The Man with the Thistledown Hair in Jonathan Strange is particularly chilling (just his name gives me the creeps), and other characters equally arch appear in The Ladies of Grace Adieu, such as Mr. John Hollyshoes.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu may be my favorite new book of short stories. Clarke's convincing writing is steeped in the customs and superstitions of England. For example, "On Lickerish Hill" claims to be a 1898 rendition of a traditional story in the Suffolk dialect and certainly feels like an old folk tale. "Mrs. Mabb," the most delightfully amusing of the tales, features a stubborn young woman hunting down her enchanted beau. "Mr. Simonelli or the Fairy Widower" is a dark tale about a young orphan scholar who takes a position as an impoverished parson in the country and has to protect his parishioners from the aforementioned John Hollyshoes.

Clarke's writing is an engaging mixture of supernatural threats amid polite society. It's elegant and creepy and at times whimsical. "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces his Horse" reads like an extended joke, and the uneducated protagonist of "On Lickerish Hill" keeps referring to fairies as "Pharisees." One paragraph in "Mrs. Mabb" made me laugh out loud, as much a result of its humor as the ingenious manner in which Clarke conveys a great deal in a few poetic words: "Billy Little was an ancient farm labourer of uncertain temper who lived in a tumbledown cottage in Shilling-lane. He was at war with all the children of Kissingland and all the children of Kissingland were at war with him." I just don't think writing gets better than that.

No comments: