Susanna Clarke's magnificent 2004 debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, marked the culmination of nearly a decade of authorial journeywork. Short pieces published variously through those years laid the groundwork for the novel's alternative history of a magic-ridden England, and these have now been collected in The Ladies of Grace Adieu.
As this reviewer commented when it first appeared, Clarke's 800-page novel weirdly seemed to be too short, bursting at the seams with an energy that cannot properly be contained by her history of Strange and Norrell, the two greatest magicians of the Napoleonic era. Footnote after thrilling footnote in the novel tantalizes the reader with glimpses of further stories about the realm of Faerie, the whole mass of which could never dispel its fearful mystery and fatal charm. It is a testament to Clarke's boundless generosity that she has now, in this collection, unpacked a number of such footnotes, delivering them as full-length stories a set of eight and granting us a view of both the sources and the essence of her invention.
Clarke's prose traverses an uncanny corridor between the scholar's desk and the fairy's hidey-hole. In the spirit of Tolkien's studious approach to the history of elves and goblins and with something of M.R. James's donnish humor when it comes to charnel horrors Clarke introduces the fantastical, twilight world of magic as scholarship. She even goes so far as to invent an academic discipline: Sidhe, fairy studies, which one apparently can major in at the University of Aberdeen. Though the saga of Strange and Norrell had little to say about lady-magicians, sorceresses conspire companionably here, and to their hearts' content, most notably in the title story.
Grace Adieu is the name of a fictitious English village, but in Clarke's landscape, it could also be a likely form of address. Hell hath no fury like a lady doing magic. If you cross her, you might as well bid grace adieu.
Michael Alec Rose is a professor of music at Vanderbilt University.