The Ladies of Grace Adieu
and Other Stories
By Susanna Clarke
Illustrations by Charles Vess
Bloomsbury, 235 pages, $29.95
December 18th, --,
I am a Murderess. Last night, under the gaze of a sullen Moon, I crepte into my back Garden, sidled up to the offending Hedge, bent very very near, and (with undisguiséd glee) hissed: "I do not believe... I do not believe... I do not believe...", whereupon, three uglie Faeries fell dead to the Ground....
-- Anonymous, Diary Entry, Date Unknown
When asked, in a recent interview, whether she believed in magic, the celebrated fantasist Susanna Clarke (author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the much-vaunted "Harry Potter for Adults") replied: "Hmm. Yes. No. Not sure."
This is no blithe sleight-of-hand. Clarke takes her ambivalence before the potential fact of fancy very seriously. Her second work, a mesmerizing collection of "real" fairy tales titled The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories (complete with a mind-bending litter of "actual" journal entries, epistolary testimony, illustrative -- albeit missing -- diagrams, historical footnotes, and even a faux academic introduction by a so-called "Professor James Sutherland, Director of Sidhe Studies, University of Aberdeen"; I googled him -- he does not exist), is a case in point.
Here, Clarke harnesses her equivocation before the veracity of Faerie to marvellous (even revisionist) effect. For it is her sustained and truly disorientating oscillations between document and dream, fact and fancy, what is and what isn't, that compel us to reassess the very bases of our staid ontological assumptions. This is not writing; this is alchemy.
Clarke has a nefarious gift for conjuring the grotesque, the violent and the downright nasty: Demure young ladies regurgitate mouse bones at tea; an ambitious foreign Queen plots ascension by fatal acts of embroidery, a witless young mother suckles a greasy fairy babe, and a broken-hearted maiden suffers repeat ravages from a ghostly Napoleonic campaign. Clarke's beasts also indulge in the sulphuric: Horses called Pandemonium carry enchanted riders who cannot dismount for fear of crumbling to dust; Judas Iscariot is an accomplished beekeeper; cows moo sermons on the evils of thievery; and three black hounds -- Plato, Socrates and Euclid -- bay out their real names -- "Wicked," "Worse" and "Worst-of-All" -- to an evil fairy accomplice.
Western rationality stands no chance against the likes of Faerie. As Clarke's faux academic puts it: These are "most emphatically not the sort of fairy that Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dodgson hoped to find at the bottom of their gardens."
But, the delicious macabre in The Ladies of Grace Adieu is exquisitely balanced by an equally delectable sense of satire. One magician rifles through his entire library to find a spell "for turning Members of Parliament into useful members of society." He cannot find one. A Saint Kentigren agrees, after some argument, to avenge an illiterate (and very irate) charcoal burner with this rather classist self-admonishment: "Saints, such as me, ought always to listen attentively to the prayers of poor, dirty, ragged men, such as you. No matter how offensively those prayers are phrased. You are our special charge." And three bumbling scholars expose themselves when, amidst other "anthropological" queries for the luscious Titania, Queen of the Fairies, they hazard a last: "Quaere: if it is true that the Queen cannot in one thinge gouverne herself?"
Clarke is also a masterful portraitist: An economy of quirky, Dickensian luminescence and coy Austenesque bite exposes the "observer" as much as the "observed." In a wonderful revision of Rumplestiltskin, the untutored heroine Miranda Sowreston provides a vivid, and inadvertently telling, portrait of her dread fairy visitor: "A small black thinge. Hairie. Legges like jug-handles. Face -- not a bit handsome. It had a long black taile -- at which I waz much surprised. Irishmen have tailes neare a quarter of a yard longe (as I think is commonly known) but I never heard before that Pharisees [fairies]have them."
Her pointed introduction of the three fumbling academics also charms: "Mr. Meldroth, a sweet, shy gentleman the colour of dust, is for Insects and haz 237 dead ones in a box. Mr. Shepreth haz discovered the date upon which the Citie of London waz first built. This being like to its Birthe-daye, haz enabled him to caste its horoscope: he knows all its Future. Dr. Foxton haz shewne by Irrefutable Arguments that Cornishmen are a kind of Fishe. His beard curles naturallie -- a certaine sign of witt."
And there is also Poesie: "Magic," an epigraph counsels, "comes from the dark and dreaming heart." A starved young mother, in death throes after birthing a fairy, is "like a house through which a great wind rushes making all the doors bang at their frames; death was rushing through her and her wits came loose and banged about inside her head." And, the magical Lickerish Hill, Miranda muses (in beautiful Suffolk dialect) appears "like a long brown shippe upon a grey sea and I have seen far-awaie lights like silver starres among the dark trees."
Clarke's numinous "Otherland" lingers like a fever. And the panacea, it would seem, is to swoon. When, in one story, an astounded Dr. David Montefiore sees his beloved Piazza Navona (which should be in Rome) glimmering seductively over a fairy bridge in Thoresby, England, he demands of his fairy friend: Will others be able to enter his beloved Piazza too? Will this fantasy endure? In a phrase: Is it real?
To this, Tom Winbright, surely the most charming of all Clarke's' extraordinary fairies, said, as Clarke puts it, "something in Sidhe, a language David did not know. However, the extravagant shrug which accompanied the remark suggested that it might be roughly translated as 'Who cares?' "
We are asking, Clarke suggests, the wrong questions. Our earnest oscillations are for naught. Are her fairies fancy or fact? Is Professor Sutherland figment or flesh? Clarke conjures this dizzying dilemma only to belie its final irrelevance. Indeed, who does care? This is wonderful -- full, that is, of wonder. Staid Veracitie? Please to withdraw. Clarke is not a writer: She is a witch. You will indulge. You will dream. You might even believe.
Karen Luscombe is an avid gardener who suffers milde plaintes of Faeophobia [n., "an irrational fear of fairies"; origin, Old French: faerie, 'fairyland', from fae 'a fairy', from Latin fata 'the Fates.']I do not believe. . . really, I don't.