The book is about the restoration of English magic. Why, asks John Segundus in the first chapter, do we only study magic, not perform it? and thenceforth the question governs the action of the book, providing motivation for Norrell (and, as we later learn, for a much more powerful force) and eventually bearing fruit in the book’s climax. But though Clarke is generally careful about her loose ends, the original decline of English magic is never explained. We learn gradually that at a certain point the tradition began to decay, and are given a hint that Uskglass might have been responsible, but the matter is never made clear. Mr. Segundus’s question is never answered.
I put the question to my mother: “how,” I ask “did England lose its magic?” But as soon as I put it that way, I know that the answer doesn’t matter. Because it’s true: England did lose its magic. Always the political scientist, my mother writes back that “perhaps we’re just intended to think of the history of England. Age of Reason. Scottish Enlightenment. Industrial Revolution. Etc.” And she asks: “So what would we conclude about the age in which magic returns?” What indeed? Before she replied, I had been thinking of literary rather than political history, of Uskglass not so much as Arthur but as someone like the Gawain poet, and of magic as a power in the management of words that waned as the language was modernized. But it’s the same kind of deal. And Janet’s question still stands. What is this revival Clarke describes? Or, as I would put it, how can a novel make us feel the restoration of magic convincingly without a treatment of its decline? I love the book, but I’m wondering if there’s a philosophical hollow here.