The silence of a winter wood
Years ago, I read an interview with Susanna Clarke in which she mentioned that although Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell takes places over the course of ten years, most of the action occurs during winter. Which makes it an excellent book to read at Christmas, because no matter what's happening or how long it's been since the last thing that happened, it's practically always snowing. (I love this book.) Take this scene, set in November 1818, when Strange goes to see if he can do anything about King George's madness and ends up nearly getting magicked himself when the King wanders off into a grove of tree . . .
But the grove had become a thicket -- no, a wood -- a deep, dark wood where the trees were ancient and wild. Their great branches resembled twisted limbs and their roots tumbling nests of snakes. They were twined about thickly with ivy and mistletoe. There was a little path between the trees; it was pitted with deep, ice-rimmed hollows and fringed with frost-stiffened weeds. Pale pinpricks of light deep within the wood suggested a house where no house ought to me.
It was impossible to find a perfect image for this post, by the way.
The lights among the trees -- tiny as they were -- conveyed to Strange a strong idea of the house and its comforts. He could almost see the soft candlelight falling upon the comfortable chairs, the ancient hearths where cheerful fires blazed, the glasses of hot spiced wine which would be provided to warm them after their walk through the dark wood. The lights suggested other ideas too. "I think there is a library," he said.
If someone were trying to enchant me, this is exactly how they would go about it. Just reading the scene is enchanting, as is the entire book, because it is full of scenes like this. Snow? Check. Warmth? Check? Aloneness within togetherness? Strange is never really together with anyone. DANGER? Check check check. Overt sense of the supernatural? Quintuple check. This is the perfect Christmas scene and it isn't even Christmas. Well played, Susanna Clarke. I yearn for this book every December.
Quotes from Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Bloomsbury, 2004.
The title of this post comes from the prophecy of John Uskglass:
My enemies crumpled like empty sacks.
I came to them out of mists and rain;
I came to them in dreams at midnight;
I came to them in a flock of ravens that filled a northern sky at dawn;
When they thought themselves safe I came to them in a cry that broke the silence of a winter wood...