While browsing for a Sci Fi Experience read in the Sci Fi/Fantasy section of the Library, I encountered Susanna Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories. Note the base of the spine in the picture. Now, I cannot say that I am an expert on the most inarguable distinctions between Science Fiction and Fantasy genres, but Faerie and Fairy Tales and Magic with no bother for scientific approaches or reasoning? Historical Settings visited without aide of a Time Machine?
I brought Susanna Clarke’s collection home to see if at least one of the stories was Sci-Fi. Also, I was curious about her. Yes, we have that enormous tome Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell at home. Sean raved about it, but I cannot make myself read it just yet. A collection of 8 stories, with the first referencing Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell seemed like a good start.
By Susanna Clarke
Illustrations by Charles Vess
235 pages, hardcover.
The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke is a collection stories involving Magic and Faerie. The introduction to the book is written by a Professor James Sutherland, Director of Sidhe Studies, University of Aberdeen (1-5). Do not skip over this, it is informative and entertaining.
— The Ladies of Grace Adieu (7-35)– This story is alluded to in Clarke’s bestselling Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (Bloomsbury, 2004) in a footnote in Chapter 43 (page 478 in the edition we have). It “provides fuller explanation of Strange’s rather enigmatic actions” (2). For those of us who have not read that novel, the story is still enjoyable. (Though I wonder if it would be more sensical had the novel been read.) The 3 Ladies of Grace Adieu relay a great deal of information about women of their time. One marries a widower for money (or otherwise must take a post as a Teacher), another is an Ideal young woman (and ward of her Uncle) proposed to marry the local Rector (as a beautiful young lady should marry), and the third is a bookish-governess–All three are close in age. What these 3 Ladies couldn’t be are students of Magic, “For ladies (as everyone knows) do not study magic” (10).
Vess’ illustration from Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge was Built at Thoresby
— On Lickerish Hill (39-62)—Here is a nice and unexpected story that turns out to be similar to the German Tale of Rumpelstiltskin. However it does take some patience to get into, adjusting to the Old English, I like this version better. I enjoyed the fact that the characters are better developed in this tale and there are greater explanations for the situations in which everyone finds themselves.
— Mrs. Mabb (65-99)—Kept drifting in and out of this one. There was plenty of humor and Fanny is amusing. But Venetia became annoying very quickly. Still, readers of Victorian Romance will no doubt navigate the melodrama quite successfully. I can’t say more on this one as I hardly remember much of it. I think Jane Austen fans will dig this one, as well as a few of the others.
— The Duke of Wellington Misplaces his Horse (103-110)—this is as amusing as it sounds. And fans of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust will appreciate that Clarke sets this story in Wall, “It concerns Wall, a village in England where there is an actual wall that divides our world and Faerie” (103). The Duke meets with the most fascinating circumstances on the other side of the wall. Who actually controls this man’s destiny, his successes and failures—a woman and her embroidery?
— Mr. Simonelli or The Fairy Widower (113-159)—Part of this collection of stories is to realize that Faerie are not sweet little creatures who flutter about angelically. Such is seen in this story which is actually an extraction of Alessanddro Simonelli’s diaries. He relays an early sequence of events in his life through a letter and diary entries. This one is a bit dark, and certainly strange, but compelling.
— Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge was Built at Thoresby (163-206)—This was a favorite of mine. The interaction between David Montefiore and Tom Brightwind is amusing. Their encounter at Thoresby was no less so. This is an especially amusing read to entertain while catching up on House, MD (tv) episodes on DVD, David and Tom/House and Wilson… Anyway, the storytelling is interesting and not modern. This collection is for lovers of the old tales as they might be remembered.
— Antickes and Frets (209-219). A story for Historical Fiction followers and those interested in Mary, Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth of England in 1568. An imprisoned Queen looking to recover her power by any means necessary to a woman; which, in this fascinating case is Embroidery. Women looking for secure futures and some availability of power mark this read. The explanation for the title Antickes and Frets, can be found on the last page 219, which is helpful to read first as it provides further illumination of the story.
— John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner (223-235)—A “retelling of a popular Northern English folktale taken from A Child’s History of the Raven King by John Waterbury, Lord Portishead” (223), which is fictional by the way—the book A Child’s History and author Waterbury are made up. “A great ruler is outwitted by one of his humblest subjects” (223). The Charcoal Burner is wronged by the otherwise oblivious John Uskglass so he goes to plead his case to the appropriate saint who would avenge said wrong. “Which saint is it that looks after cheeses?” demanded the Charcoal Burner. “The Almoner thought for a moment. “That would be Saint Bridget.” (228). There is a lot of silliness here. And perhaps some seriousness… the theme of Entitlement comes to mind. It is a really nice story to close out this collection.
The Writing is good, the Storytelling is fluid and the differing approaches show-off Clarke’s flexible talent and her wonderful ability to capture the old Tales, even if they are tales of her own creation. I think she has a bit of Faerie herself. For example, would you have noticed upon first reading that the Introduction by Professor James Sutherland, Director of Sidhe Studies, University of Aberdeen is a short story as well? Loveliness. A completed collection of Fairy Tales. Clarke not-so-subtly interrogates the assertions of Fiction versus Nonfiction. Who is to say which Story or Figure is real or not?
A bit about the Illustrator, Charles Vess, whose black and white line drawings for this collection are perfectly suited. They are quite brilliant. Wikipedia records this argument:
“Mary Ann Gwinn praises them in The Seattle Times, describing them as “delightful” and inspired by art deco and Edward Gorey. Lucy Hughes-Hallett, however, argues that the volume is “insistently and inappropriately illustrated”. Agreeing that the images are indebted to Rackham, she contends that they are “anachronistic” and a “kind of mimsy-whimsy.”
I don’t know… I kind of liked them. The title pages of each story were really nice and they do look Child Storybook-ish, which is a nice touch, and probably intentional.
Charles Vess’ website.
Found this review by Carl V. at Stainless Steel Droppings after I wrote my review. His is excellent, of course.
If you’ve a review I will likely link it…