Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Book Review - Susanna Clarke's The Ladies of Grace Adieu

The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke
Published by: Bloomsbury USA
Publication Date: October 17th, 2006
Format: Hardcover, 1235 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Magic is more prevalent then Jonathan Strange cares to consider as he sees three women reveling in a spell successfully concluded. Mr. Norrell might think that it's only in the past that great magic was done and only in books that one might learn magic, but even the humblest tapestry might have a magical purpose. And love, well, love can make you do almost anything in it's pursuit, even destroy the most magical of enchantments. In these stories Susanna Clarke tells us a few tales of magic and imagination from the world of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. What happens when the Duke of Wellington's horse goes through a hole in a wall created by Neil Gaiman? What is the result when fairy magic finally brings a long delayed bridge to town? And what happens when the great Raven King, John Uskglass is felled by a simple charcoal burner? Anything might happen with just a touch of magic.

Sometimes we can be dazzled by an author and fail to see what should be apparent. We loved their previous work so this new work must be brilliant, it just must be, how could it be otherwise? We remember what is brilliant and forget the chaff. Never is this more apparent then in a collection of short stories where it's easy to forget the bad and only cling to the memorable. In the two years between reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and The Ladies of Grace Adieu Susanna Clarke had become my favorite author so I thought she could do no wrong. The stories I didn't like I assumed I just didn't understand. Plus, there could be no denying the gorgeous production value of the book with Charles Vess's illustrations, which add another level of distractive beauty. I have since come to realize the humanity and fallibility of authors more and realized just what a mixed bag The Ladies of Grace Adieu really is.

The problem is that sometimes these stories take themselves too seriously. Yet Clarke's work works when she doesn't take herself too seriously and seems to have an arched brow over even the most trifling of matters. In Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell anything that might be too serious is brought down a peg with a well placed wry footnote. Here her footnotes are few and far between. The subtle mockery of the academic is replaced at times with an earnestness that just doesn't work. Her stories become turgid and staid. Clarke needs to remember to not take herself too seriously.

If we compare the light and humorous "Antickes and Frets" with the abysmal "On Lickerish Hill" I think we can clearly see the two ends of the spectrum. "Antickes and Frets" dealing with Mary Queen of Scots and a new found obsession for embroidery is witty and droll in the many plots to bring down Queen Elizabeth, whereas "On Lickerish Hill" is a painful retelling of Rumpelstiltskin. Firstly, did we really need yet another retelling of this tale? Rumpelstiltskin, while important in fairy lore to point out the importance of names, is easily the most boring fairy tale I can think of. But more importantly did it really need to be written in faux olde tyme language with horrid spelling and vocabulary? No it did not!

What is interesting to the Clarke fanatic though is comparing the differing views of the same world as presented in The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. What one clearly sees is that, as one suspected all along, the two great magician's of the age are more ignorant then they would like us to believe. There is a lot more going on in the world then these two learned gentlemen know or would like to admit. Magic has always stayed around, it hasn't "disappeared" as they so ominously prophesied. Yes, they did bring it back into the more glaring public arena, but it has been subtly continuing all along in out of the way places and often by people who you would least expect, like women and the other "lower orders." It makes the aforementioned fanatic long for her next book that supposedly sees this world through the eyes of these lower orders. Ah, the stories they could tell and hopefully one day will.

As to these women... what is interesting about Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is that, while there is a strong male presence, the book to me is subversively feminine. The narrator is female, and the power the men grasp for seems to have, in the past, been easily mastered by females, and probably still is if they'd bother to ask a female. If her first book is subversively feminine, The Ladies of Grace Adieu is overtly feminine. In only two of the eight stories are men the protagonists. Every other story revels in women and their powers. The stories even take great glee in repressed and oppressed women getting the better of their male counterparts. Magic still is strong in this domestic sphere. "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse" and "Antickes and Frets" takes the magical power of women even further by showing a distinctly feminine art, that of embroidery, being used to magical purposes. So while it may be uneven, the message stays strong and provides a nice counterpoint to Clarke's previous work.


I have had this book on my wishlist for the longest time and your review made me want to get it as soon as possible. I also haven't read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, so maybe it's better I read that first in preparation for the tv series. :D

Totally ;) Also, you could win a copy of The Ladies of grace Adieu, right now you'd have a really good chance of winning :P

Post a Comment

Newer Post Older Post Home