ANDREW GARVEY looks at the fifth episode of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell titled Arabella
Having last week promised his wife they’d head back to Shropshire and live a distinctly un-magical life, this week’s episode opens with Jonathan right in the thick of it. The ‘it’ in question being at war with Napoleon’s army, exactly 200 years ago, in the mud, the chaos and the rain at Waterloo.
After graphically testing his claim the last time he served Wellington that a gentleman would never use magic to kill a man (does a marauding, axe-wielding French soldier count?), Strange helps swing the course of the war.
Finally fulfilling his promise to Arabella, he writes his own book ‘the History and Practice of English Magic’, having previously, and very publicly, savaged Norrell’s own ‘Friends of English Magic’, a volume that barely mentioned Strange at all and never even touched upon the kind of magic he knows to be extremely powerful.
That Norrell and Strange share a publisher adds a little extra fuel to their rivalry but feels very contrived. If the subject is so wildly popular, were there no other publishing houses interested in what he has to say?
The indignant Norrell complains and moans about Strange and in a neat background touch, his ‘servant’ (really, he’s far more of an advisor, sometime moral conscience and sometime amoral manipulator) Childermass looks bored out of his mind, as if he’s heard this aggrieved ranting a thousand times already.
Safely held as the only patient of Segundas and Honeyfoot’s new madhouse where she was deposited in last week’s episode, Lady Pole is still plagued by disturbing night terrors and odd visions but now they feature Arabella.
The following morning, Arabella’s mysterious disappearance (as foretold in Lady Pole’s ravings to Segundas) and a sighting of her wandering in the snowy Welsh hills, leads her husband to try using his magical powers, namely that bowl full of water trick he’s done several times before, to find her.
Arabella has been taken by Lady Pole’s former servant Stephen to see Lady Pole, walks into the coldly unforgiving embrace of the Gentleman and, as a result of a bargain unwittingly made by her husband to take a doppelgänger as his wife, is doomed to stay there forever.
Stricken by grief when, shortly after, his ‘wife’ dies, Strange refuses his clergyman brother-in-law’s offer to bury his ‘sister’ and instead turns to magic to resurrect her.
His only problems – that his former mentor Norrell seems unwilling to help and the only magic powerful and dark enough to bring ‘her’ back is the sort practiced by the Gentleman himself.
Picking up the pace from last week’s quieter episode, this is one of the series’ very best so far. The opening battle scene is great, aside from a little too much of the visual gimmickry with things slowing down and blurring. It works best when the action is fast and loud and, of course, when Strange is using his powers.
Darker and less light-heartedly amusing than any previous installment, the writing this week is excellent. Neatly tying the prophecy of the Raven King into the very real, historical events of laid-off workers rioting and destroying machinery as a response to technological change and the Industrial Revolution, it works equally well as historical costume drama and fantasy.
And some under-utilised characters shine this week. After being irritatingly lightweight, and essentially pointless, Segundas and Honeyfoot actually have a significant role to play. Lady Pole, amidst her misunderstood ravings, is determined to save her friend and Childermass seems about to fulfil his potential to be a major character, resolved to “put and end to this bloody stupid feud” between the two magicians.
But Strange is by some way the star of the show, whether in battle or domestic happiness or grief or bitter despair or flirting with madness, he’s a believable, sympathetic presence as he heads into the final two episodes and (I’m guessing) a final, climactic, long-awated showdown with Norrell.