When I was in high school, my best friend lent me her copy of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which I absolutely loved. I enjoyed the story, the writing, and the footnotes (!!!). I never quite found or read another book that I had enjoyed in the same way.
Fast forward to (approximately) ten years later: I found an e-book copy of The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories and borrowed it from the library. Initially, I had only planned to read one story for my Short Bites segment (see entry here), but I enjoyed the first story so much that I decided to read on. And then I decided to finish the collection, reading a story every now and then.
There are eight stories in the collection. While I liked all of them, my favorites are the first (“The Ladies of Grace Adieu”) and the last (“John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner”) stories.
The writing style is similar to that of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which shouldn’t be surprising as the short stories are set in the same world. The writing reminded me of reading the classics (the stories are set in 19th century England): the vibe is formal, the humor is not as forward, and the words are spelled differently than they are today. Given these, I feel the stories require more patience from the reader.
The stories read like fairy tales, and not all of the stories include characters from the book. The collection is a nice companion to the novel (but Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is one heck of a read with ~900 pages, so no pressure to read the book), and it talks about other forms of magic that weren’t really covered in the novel.
Set in the same world as Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu brings us back to 19th century England, a time in which gender roles dictated that women must stick only to domestic affairs (while men deal with public affairs). Here we find the ladies of Grace Adieu:
Mrs. Field: the second (and young) wife of an old man
Cassandra: the niece of that old man; she is only a year younger than Mrs. Field
Miss Tobias: a governess to two young heiresses to a large family fortune
The ladies have a sisterly bond. During their spare time, they call upon (visit) each other and talk about different things, ranging from Cassandra’s potential future man to recently published magical studies articles.
OK, magic: well, in this world, women only deal with domestic affairs, so magic, which is considered a public affair, is out of the question for them. Therefore, only men can be magicians. Right, well, clearly we all disagree. The ladies of Grace Adieu are fighters: if there’s something they set their hearts and minds to do, who or what’s to stop them? To quote Cassandra:
If ever a time comes, when your heart and your head declare a truce, then I suggest you come back to Grace Adieu and then you may tell us what magic may or may not do.
Susanna Clarke, “The Ladies of Grace Adieu” in The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories
Whereas Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell have written article upon article and have worked to formalize magic and to document how magic should be, the ladies of Grace Adieu challenge that worldview: gender roles are ridiculous, and The Raven King lives on.