The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The last time I felt this way was when I read Gone With the Wind, and now, as I turned the final pages of The Ladies of Grace Adieu and other stories – sheer disappointment that there was no more to read. I’ve had such a lovely five days exploring and re-exploring, in some cases, the magical world that Susanna Clarke has built. For those of you who are unaware of this author, she made a debut a few years ago with her faerie novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. It is set in Regency England where magic is a highly scholarly field with only two gentlemen (the ones whose names make up the title) really practicing it. Clarke brilliantly weaves magic mixed with many real political issues of the day, especially the battles with Napoleon Bonaparte. Clarke recreates the original meaning of ‘faerie’. It isn’t happy and pleasant; it is eerie and unnerving sometimes. It’s the kind of stuff country folk must’ve talked about in fearful and hushed tones when the moon was up and they gathered round the warm fires of their humble homes. The kind that they used most effectively to describe strange things that happened around them that they could not otherwise explain.
We see this world again in Clarke’s book of eight short stories. While all of them have something of the fae in their stories, whether in great amounts or small, they are each of them so different from the others – with completely different plots and protagonists that are so unalike.
“The Ladies of Grace Adieu“
This one is about three young ladies who prove to be practicing magicians. However, in Regency England, it is believed that only men can do magic, and for the most part there are only two, at the time, who actually practice magic – Mr Norrell and Jonathan Strange of the Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell fame. But these women are quite content to have things as they are, delighting and scorning the ignorance of men and their opinions of the female sex. If you’ve read Clarke’s enormous novel you will find that the men magicians tend to argue a great deal over theories and give absolutely no importance to what is known as Faerie. On the other hand, the women magicians are firm believers in Faerie and the potent magic of Faerie…hence their magic is also of a different sort. (You will find this difference, not only in this story but in all the stories that involved magic by women.)
Now, one of these ladies is a governess to two orphan girls who are to come into a great deal of inheritance when they leave behind their minor status. An uncle of theirs (also their trustee) comes over one day with the intent of doing away with the children so that he might inherit everything. The governess and her two friends do all in their power to prevent any harm from coming to the children.
“On Lickerish Hill”
Now this story is a spin-off or rather, an adaptation of the well-known tale of “Rumplestiltskin“. The story is told in the first person by a young woman who seems to be rather low down the rung of society. Due to a lie her mother tells a rich landlord, Miranda (the narrator) finds herself married to him. In the last month of their one year of being married he locks her in a tower and tells her to spin the finest silk off flax. And the rest is history with a slight twist – it is actually quite dark in terms of atmosphere, though the tone is a bit light due to the rather practical cheerfulness of the narrator herself. She is no weepy, moany woman. She is constantly on the go (not physically speaking), figuring out her next move. It is interesting, however, that many things seem to turn out because she seems to have planned it that way. However, one does not really see her planning anything. At the end I wondered if she just got lucky. But really…you can’t say with Miranda.
I think this tale was so typically faerie. Have you ever heard of fairy folk tales from the British Isles where people suddenly disappear, see strange things, grow old over night, etc etc? Well, this could be one. A young woman called Venetia comes back to her little village, from attending to a friend who was extremely ill, to find that a neighbour has got her claws into the man Venetia was hoping to marry. Convinced that Captain Fox really loved her, Venetia seeks Mrs Mabb. But the latter is a mystery and like the elfin fires one hears of in the woods, Mrs Mabb’s location keeps changing and strange keep happening to our heroine, until, at long last, the Fae gives her back her Captain.
“The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse”
Yep! This is about the Duke. And this story is set in the world of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. More specifically it is set in the town of Wall. Wellington isn’t particularly popular among the inhabitants of Wall when he comes to visit him, and one of them plays a trick on him. As a result his horse strays onto the faerie side of Wall, and when Wellington goes to get him back he comes across a strange stone house with a beautifully lady busy at embroidery. This is a very short piece, and one of two in this collection that portrays the power the women have with their needle skills.
“Mr Simonelli or The Fairy Widower”
Simonelli is a poor scholar and priest who is encouraged to accept a living in a ‘rich’ parish. On his arrival he finds himself assisting with a strange delivery in which the mother dies in child-birth, and meets some very strange people. John Hollyshoes claims to be the master of All-Hope (the little village). But Mrs Gathercole, the acting patron of the village, has never heard of Hollyshoes. Hers is the only rich establishment in an otherwise extremely poor village. Simonelli journals his entire experience in this little village, as well as the discovery of who he really is. This entire story is told in the form of journal entries.
“Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge was Built at Thoresby”
David Montefiore is a Jewish doctor who has been called to attend to a sick man on his death-bed. One of his closest friends, Tom Brightwind who is a fairy prince, declares his intention on accompanying the doctor. On their way there they come to an astonishingly poor village called Thoresby. The squire has been negligent in his duties, allowing the village to go to ruin for lack of a bridge over the river that separates it from the more commercialised land. Brightwind decides to take a hand as a whim, and overnight he builds a fairy bridge, and spawns yet another son in the process.
“Antickes and Frets”
This is a very short piece that deals with Mary Queen of Scots when she was Queen Elizabeth’s prisoner. She seeks to kill her cousin in the hopes that she might inherit the throne of England. But the Countess in charge of her is just too clever. Again, this is a story of magic through embroidery. Apparently, antickes and frets refer to two kinds of embroidery used in Elizabethan tapestry.
“John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner”
John Uskglass is the Raven King of North England, the lord of Faeries and the most powerful magician in the kingdom. On one of his hunting sprees he stumbles across a charcoal burner and destroys this man’s only possessions. Angry and upset, the charcoal burner prays to the saints, and revenge is his. Uskglass returns, thinking the charcoal burner is a brilliant magician. He offends the old man again, and again the man cries out to the saints and he is avenged. This whole goes another round until finally Uskglass accepts defeat.
Apparently, this story is supposed to be a retelling of a tale, much like “On Lickerish Hill” (the second story reviewed in this collection). I am not sure if this is a re-telling as the previous sentence means it, or if it is a re-telling within Clarke’s magical universe. I say this, because I haven’t heard of any story that moves along these lines. If you have please do tell me, I’d love to have a read!
So, there it is! The eight stories in Susanna Clarke’s Ladies of Grace Adieu and other stories. This was an incredibly enjoyable read and I would recommend this collection to anyone who loves fantasy, history, literary fiction, Jane Austen and fantastic writing!