Susanna Clarke’s much lauded magnum opus Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is one of my favorite speculative books. So I didn’t hesitate to order The Ladies Of Grace Adieu And Other Stories after reading an excellent review on the Calmgrove blog.
It features 8 stories, plus a fictional introduction by “Professor James Sutherland, Director of Sidhe Studies, University of Aberdeen”. That introduction is only 3 pages and set my expectations even higher, as Clarke’s familiar ‘English’ narrative voice shone through instantly, promising more of the treat Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was. All the stories in this 235-page collection deal with Faerie in one way or the other, and were illustrated by WFA winning artist Charles Vess. A few are also explicitly linked with J.S. & Mr. N.
The stories are about 10 to 50 pages long, and nearly all predate Clarke’s big tome by a few years. All but one were published before. Here’s a list of the titles: The Ladies Of Grace Adieu (1996), On Lickerish Hill (1997), Mrs Mabb (1998), The Duke Of Wellington Misplaces His Horse (1999), Mr Simonelli Or The Fairy Widower (2000), Tom Brightwind Or How The Fairy Bridge Was Built At Thoresby (2001), Antickes And Frets (2004) and John Uskglass And The Cumbian Charcoal Burner (new).
Let’s cut to the chase: I thought the first three weren’t that good. It feels a bit like Clarke was still searching for her narrative voice, and these early stories lack the feeling of brooding mystery that permeates so much of her novel. They also lack the hard to describe oddball, smooth wit that makes much of her later work an eerie comedy of manners.
The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse is short, sweet and a bit bonkers, a good read, simple as that. It features Wellington losing his horse, indeed. Mr Simonelli Or The Fairy Widower shows what the problem of the earlier stories was: with its 50 pages, this story finally has enough room to allow for Clarke’s slow-burning atmosphere to bloom. The same goes for Tom Brightwind…‘s forty pages. If you are a fan of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, these are the stories that merit the purchase of this volume. The two final stories are short & sweet again, simple as that.
So, what’s my advice? Read the novel first, if you haven’t – it’s inventive, and I know nothing like it. I’m quite sure you’ll get a lot more out of these stories if you have. For those uninitiated in Clarke’s brand of faerie logic & mythology, my guess is that this collection is maybe a bit too peculiar to get into. But if you have read & loved the novel, and if you have a few coins to spare, there’s stupider things to throw money at…