Saturday, May 19, 2007

Ladies of Grace Adieu

Expectations play a large part in a book's reception, and I may have been fortunate in coming to Susanna Clarke's story collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu having heard, repeatedly, that it lacked the magnitude of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Because of the less-than-stellar reviews, I wasn't expecting much -- and thus was pleasantly surprised by the charm and originality of the stories. (Though only time will tell if our book group's consensus that the stories were enjoyable but forgettable holds true.)

Part of the pleasure came from seeing more of the distaff side of the world portrayed in Jonathan Strange, an emphasis reinforced by the book's title (which is also that of its first story). Since I obsess over patterns, the arrangement of the collection was another asset: it seemed designed to encourage discovery of common threads among adjacent stories.

Marriage and women's magic run through the first three tales, with "Ladies of Grace Adieu" and "On Lickerish Hill" both telling of women who free themselves from potentially murderous men and uncomfortable marriages (actual or impending) through magical means. ( Jill at Individual Take has also blogged about the connections between "Lickerish Hill" and the folktale "Tom Tit Tot," a British variant of "Rumpelstiltskin".) The third story, "Mrs. Mabb," reverses the concept: when a marriageable man falls under a magical enchantment, his unmagical but resolute girlfriend courageously decides to free him (a premise with tangential connections to "Tam Lin"). "The Duke of Wellington and His Horse" actually takes the same basic formula -- a human determined to reclaim something dear that's held captive by faerie -- but substitutes the title pair for the romantic couple in "Mabb". Women's work -- in the form of sewing and spinning (usually with magic entwined) -- is another recurring motif in the collection, and "The Duke of Wellington," one of our book group's favorite stories, exemplifies this beautifully.

"Mr. Simonelli or the Fairy Widower" and "Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge was Built at Thorseby" share more than subtitles -- both pair a human (more-or-less) doctor and a fairy widower in some type of deceptive relationship; both contain bevies of unmarried sisters, deceased patients, and problems related to childbearing (youth, fertility, death?). "Antickes & Frets," another favorite of the group, is perhaps the best of the sewing stories, and a fine companion to the final tale, "John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner." As with "Mrs. Mabb" and "Duke of Wellington," two very different stories contain similar ideas: In "Antickes," a frustrated Mary, Queen of Scots (seen in the accompanying illustration from that story) schemes against the powerful Queen Elizabeth, who has taken away all she holds dear; in "John Uskglass," a frustrated charcoal burner seeks retaliation against the powerful fairy magician John Uskglass, who has ruined his home and frightened his pig. In both, the desire for revenge yields unexpected results.

Addenda: Jill's just added her thoughts on the book and some informative links.


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