The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke
The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke
Published by Bloomsbury Books, November 2006
Review by Hobbit
Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, published in 2004, was one of the genre bestsellers for 2004 & 2005. It also won the Hugo Award for 2005 as well as the World Fantasy Award in the same year.
Determinedly old-fashioned in style and tone, and indomitably weighty (at over 800 pages of small print), it was regarded by many, such as Neil Gaiman, as a triumph, being able to combine a Dickensian or Austenian sensibility and a witty dark sense of humour with magic.
It also caused interest here at SFFWorld on the Forums when first released, as well as when it was a Book of the Month, with some finding the mannered tone annoying and others being very impressed with the scale and depth of its tale.
So what to make of Susanna’s latest? The Ladies of Grace Adieu is a short story fix-up collection, with, rather surprisingly considering the previous book, an emphasis on the short. Unlike the previous novel, this book is 256 pages of fairly large print, containing eight stories and spaced out with some rather good illustrations by Charles Vess.
Seven of the eight stories have been published before and date from 1996 to 2004. The last story, John Uskglass and the Charcoal Burner, is new to this collection, (though at the time of writing expected to be published in the December 2006 edition of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction); readers of Strange/Norrell will recognise that name in the title.
The stories, as explained in a fictitious preface, do have a common theme in that they all deal with the world of Faerie and its resident’s interactions with humans. Jonathan Strange (and to a lesser point, Mister Norrell) make an appearance in the story, The Ladies of Grace Adieu. As explained in the preamble of the book, this first story deals with a minor event mentioned in one of the footnotes of Strange/Norrell in Chapter 43, ‘where Jonathan Strange went to some trouble to extract his clergyman brother-in-law from a living in Gloucestershire and get him a different living in Northamptonshire.’ It is a tale of sisterhood in a male-dominated world of magicianship.
On Lickerish Hill is a Rumplestilkskin-esque tale written in an old rustic dialect, very much in the style of traditional fairytales.
Mrs Mabb is a story of quite ominous intent, but again a tale of a strong female character, Venetia Moore, and her dealings with a sinister older lady who has a power over her sweetheart.
In ‘The Duke of Wellington misplaces his horse’ (see online version here) is a brief tale with links to Neil Gaiman’s story Stardust (also illustrated by Charles Vess.) Here Clarke manages to create an effective and amusing tale by combining the world of reality (being the Duke of Wellington) with events in the world of Faerie, and the resulting consequences.
Mr Simonelli, or The Fairy Widower, was shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award in 2001. It is a diary tale, though may not all be believed, of how Alessandro Simonelli tries to inherit his father’s estate; an estate which is connected to the world of Faerie.
Tom Brightwind, or How the Fairy Bridge was built at Thoresby is a tale of magical doings or possibly undoings, whereby the magical people of Faerie achieve amazing things, but always at a cost to those who wish.
Antickes and Frets is a short story of about fourteen pages but it was an interesting, if not rather chilling, take on magic in Elizabethan England.
John Uskglass and the Charcoal Burner, is a story (as explained in the Preface, much loved by the Medievals) where ‘the rich and powerful are confounded by their inferiors’. Here The Raven King meets his match in an unlikely hero.
Some of the stories read as though they are some of those lengthy footnotes in Strange/Norrell, which readers seemed to either love or hate. Ladies of Grace Adieu is one, Duke of Wellington another. These are thirty or forty pages or so long. In contrast, some of the stories (such as Wellington or Antickes and Frets) are rather short. It was pleasing to see the things many readers liked about Strange/Norrell can be achieved in a shorter format.
I found it interesting reading stories which cover the same ground as Strange/Norrell but in a shorter format. Generally, the majority of the stories here deal with aspects of bygone ages. At first glance they all seem to involve kings and queens, ladies and gentlemen, religious parsons and genteel Edwardian or Victorian English society; what they slyly do, underneath the veneer, is hearken back to the old folktale – the sort of story told from generation to generation around an open fire etc etc. These are fairytales – ones which tell of mischief and horror as well as humour.
In summary then, this may be a good place to start for those who wish to try Ms Clarke’s work, or those who felt rather intimidated by Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I still find, as I did with Strange and Norrell, that the writing has more impact in smaller doses – a story every day or so apart, rather than reading the slim volume in one gulp (though I’m sure it can be done.) Read together en masse I would rather suspect that their individual style, wit and skill become rather similar, and I’m not entirely sure that people who found Strange/Norrell difficult or at least too mannered are going to find much different here. But as stories, rather than as a complete collection, they are (for the traditional fairytale lover) – enchanting.
Mark Yon / Hobbit, December 2006
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