Friday, 3 February 2012

The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke | Oh unadultered joy!

After primarily having read detective fiction as of late, it was a pure pleasure to read Susanna Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu and other stories. And it was such a bargain too, on sale at Exclus1ve Books for a mere R37. I haven’t read the novel Clarke is famous for, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but now I think I’ll make efforts to read it after all.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and other stories is a collection of short stories about magic and fairies in Britain. The stories are all set back in time, from the 1500s to the 1800s, where fairies were more commonly found, both in nature and in literature. What impressed me with this collection was not only the intriguing stories, but also Clarke’s way of changing tones and voices for the different narrator’s of each story. “The ladies of Grace Adieu” and “Mrs Mabb” have very clear nudges to Austen’s playful language and style: “Fanny’s husband was the curate of Kissingland, a person of no particular importance in the society of the place, who baptised, married, and buried all its inhabitants, who visited them in their sick-beds, comforted them in their griefs, and read their letters to them if they could not do it for themselves” (p.66). “On Lickerish Hill” has more of a Moll Flanders type of narrator. “Mr Simonelli or the Fairy Widower” is in Emily Brontë’s tradition of a darker, more gothic tale with a diary narration.

There are numerous references to British folklore and fairytales as well as literary connotations to Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the many renditions of Rumpelstiltskin, and Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. I am convinced Clarke must have had a blast writing it, because I sure had fun reading it!

“On Lickerish Hill” is an interesting and refreshing take on the Rumpelstiltskin story. I am charmed and amused by the narrator’s spellings, and I just love how the story progresses. Throughout the stories there is a tension between mockery and admiration for so-called scholars, and this is comes across perfectly in this story. Further, here we also find, as in many of the other stories, a female cunning that is both laugh-out-lout funny at times, and rubbing-hands-together satisfying.

“Mrs Mabb” is an awesome response to the notion of female hysteria in the Victorian age. Miss Moore has been abandoned by her lover, Captain Fox, in favour of the mysterious and elusive Mrs Mabb. Miss Moore makes several attempts to find Mrs Mabb’s house so that she can confront her lover, but every time she tries, she wakes up hours later, exhausted, wounded and babbling incoherently. Soon, Miss Moore’s hysteria is common knowledge: “She heard Hebe, Marjory, Joan or Nan observe to the others that Miss Moore had, as was well known, gone mad for the love of handsome Captain Fox” (p. 91). As readers we know that Miss Moore isn’t crazy, but can she prove her sanity before she is sent off to an asylum?

“Mr Simonelli or the Fairy Widower” is a gothic type of story in Emily Brontë’s tradition. Mr Simonelli is a clergyman who moves to a very small parish. On his first night there, he sees two men arguing with a third man, and before he knows it, Simonelli has offered his medical services to the two men, who are looking for a doctor to help the wife who is in childbirth. The wife unfortunately dies, but the baby boy is safely delivered, and Simonelli noted that “this child was, to all intents and purposes, black” (p. 123). Additionally, the whole household was filthy, but strangely so, as beautiful items lay side by side with rotting and decayed items. The man of the house, a John Hollyshoes, seemed unconcerned with his wife’s death, and Simonelli left without much thought.

The following day, the man who had been fighting with the two men the night before is found dead – struck in two, and a woman who recently gave birth goes missing. As the weeks pass, he gets to know his parishioners, none of which know of a John Hollyshoes. Simonelli goes to visit him again, and Hollyshoes reveals to him that they are in fact relatives. Simonelli’s unknown father is Hollyshoes’ cousin, and Simonelli could be the heir to his father’s vast estates. Simultaneously, Simonelli is trying to chose a wife out of five sisters, and Hollyshoes reveals that he would like to marry one of the sisters himself.

Simonelli goes to visit the mother of the girl who disappeared, who tells him that her daughter has been taken by the fairy John Hollyshoes, who lives in the area. Simonelli visits Hollyshoes and asks to see his baby son. Sure enough, the daughter is indeed the baby’s wet nurse, but she believes herself to be in the most beautiful castle nursing a little prince of a child. Will Simonelli be able to save the girl, as well as keep the five sisters safe from Hollyshoes’ spells?

There is a lot of humour and irony in the collection. References are made to literature as a genre, and this is one of my favourites: “But those girls do nothing. Absolutely nothing! A little embroidery, a few music lessons. Oh! and they read English novels! David! Did you ever look into an English novel? Well, do not trouble yourself. It is nothing but a lot of nonsense about girls with fanciful names getting married” (p. 174). This is a direct reference to the sentiment around the 1700s and 1800s that novels were immoral and silly, and that typically young girls were under their influence. It is doubly amusing since it also refers to some of the greatest authors of the era who wrote precisely about the topic of getting married: Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë and so on.

Another reference I enjoyed is the view the people in the novel have of themselves, as English: “There was, after all, nothing in the world so natural as people wishing to be English” (p. 183). Well, the term “anglophile” surely came from somewhere!

Gender is definitely a theme in the collection, and we do find some amusing stereotypes in some of the stories. In “Mr Simonelli…”, after the Hollyshoe’s wife has died in childbirth, Simonelli is looking for him: “I discovered him in his library where, with an admirable shew of masculine unconcern, he was reading a book” (sic. p. 124). In Mrs Mabb, we also find a funny stereotype that is recognisable from novels such as Pride and Prejudice: “Mr Hawkins said nothing; the Hawkins’ domestic affairs were arranged upon the principle that Fanny supplied the talk and he the silence” (p. 67).

Clarke has written a truly successful collection of fairy stories, leaving me wanting more! The stories are all so different in tone, style, plot and language that all stand out in their own unique way. There are some beautiful illustrations in the book which helps set the mood and bring the stories to life. If you love a little bit of magic in your life, if you enjoyed fairytales as a child, if you read fantasy or sci-fi, or even if you just love Austen, there is something here for you. The Ladies of Grace Adieu and other stories is pure enjoyment. I hope Clarke has more of these gems up her sleeve, and if Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is half as good as this collection, it is well worth a read.

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