Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.
They were gentleman-magicians, which is to say they had never harmed any one by magic -- nor ever done any one the slightest good. In fact, to own the truth, not one of these magicians had ever cast the smallest spell, nor by magic caused one leaf to tremble upon a tree, made one mote of dust to alter its course or changed a single hair upon any one's head. But, with this one minor reservation, they enjoyed a reputation as some of the wisest and most magical gentlemen in Yorkshire.
Summary: In 1803, or thereabouts, a man named John Segundus happened to encounter a vagabond and street magician who claimed that he would tell him a great secret for a sum of money; Segundus paid, and the vagabond prophesied that one day magic would be restored to England by two magicians. Musing on this leads him to propose to the York society the question of why magic was no longer done in England, which, magicians being as argumentative as academics, led to a ferocious argument. One of the other magicians, however, suggested that he and Mr Segundus consult with a reclusive magician who was rumored to have an excellent library. This they do, and thus we meet Gilbert Norrell, who, it turns out, has been a practicing magician for some time. This touches off a chain of events that brings Mr Norrell to London with the great aim of restoring English magic.
By 'restoring English magic' Mr Norrell means, 'the magic of Mr Norrell', for he is in fact rather fearful of even the possibility of another magician. They might do it wrong, you see. And one of the reasons why Mr Norrell has such a magnificent library of magic, the best in England, besides the fact that he loves books on magic, is that he wants to make sure that he is the one who has them. Books of magic in the wrong hands, which is almost anyone else's hands, are potentially dangerous.
In trying to convince people of the importance of his project, however, Norrell makes a fateful move. Faced with the possibility of winning a powerful patron by raising his wife from the dead, Norrell does a kind of magic he thinks should not be done: he summons a fairy, a gentleman with hair like thistledown, and strikes a bargain. This will have terrible results; but it is itself the act that begins the ball rolling toward the restoration of English magic.
A couple of years later, Norrell meets Jonathan Strange, who has been trying to learn magic on his own -- and succeeded. This, of course, is Mr Norrell's great fear. But he asks Strange to demonstrate what he can do, and Strange does a kind of magic that Norrell had never come across in his reading, and for the first, and if I recall correctly, the only time in the book, laughs with delight at it. Magicians are very much like academics you see; they want all the credit, but can't help be elated at something new and remarkable and their own fields. Thus starts the curious partnership that makes up the bulk and charm of the book.
It is curious because Norrell and Strange are in many ways opposites. Norrell is retiring and cautious; Strange is bold and daring. Norrell barely fits into London society; Strange has no difficulty doing so. Norrell's actions give him a reputation for being dry and petty; not so Strange. But it is possible to overstate the difference. For they are both at root magicians, England's only two, and they share more in common than might be thought; equally presumptuous, equally absorbed in the study of magic to the point of utter selfishness, and equally caught up in something they have not even begun to understand.
Part of what makes the pairing work is that Clarke doesn't take the lazy way with it. It would be easy to make Norrell the uptight conservative impediment to progress and Strange the likable progressive hero. But this is not it at all; you misunderstand both if you read them this way. Norrell is the progressive. He wants to break with the past, the old stories of England's prior magic age about the mysterious figure of the Raven King, building a magic for the modern age, suitable to a modern England, erasing his own dependence on the very things he repudiates. Strange is the traditionalist, coming to think that the only way forward is to go back to the roots, and ultimately the Raven King himself, but more dependent on Norrell's way than he recognizes. Norrell is constantly trying to exclude the possibility of other magicians precisely because he is concerned with the progress of magic; he cannot trust other magicians actually to contribute to the progress. It is an acute case of Enlightenment despotism. Strange ends up wanting to broaden magic precisely because he wants a return to the magic of a prior day. To oversimplify massively, Norrell is the Enlightenment magician, extending into the nineteenth century, insisting upon progress, but progress done his way, while Strange is the Romantic magician, just thought-up by the nineteenth century, romanticizing the medieval golden age but at the same time attempting to impose his will on it. There's a reason the restoration of English magic requires them both. And it is inevitable that they are both wrong.
A great deal of the novel is taken up with the question of the 'English' in the phrase 'English magic'; and the book explores the intersection between the unEnglish and the uncanny. Or perhaps it would be better to say that it explores the way in which the unEnglish is itself uncanny. We certainly get an entire parade of the unEnglish, to the extent that only by dint of being an interesting story with interesting characters does the book avoid collapsing into a near-parodic white Englishwoman's checklist for diversity. But the book explores also the fact that the border between English and unEnglish is highly permeable, and has always been; the English has always been constructed out of the unEnglish, layers and layers of things once uncanny now grown canny -- or, sometimes, still uncanny in secret. For, though no one may notice, the old alliances are still in place.
Strange shrugged. "Well," he said. "I have nothing better to suggest. Where is your copy of The Language of the Birds?"
He looked about the room. Every book lay where it had fallen the moment it had ceased to be a raven. "How many books are there?" he asked.
"Four or five thousand," said Norrell.
The magicians took a candle each and began to search.
Recommendation: Highly recommended. It's one of those books that everyone should read at least once; and it gets better on the re-reading.