Jun 16, 2008

The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke

The Ladies of Grace Adieu is a collection of eight short stories. Two of these stories are set in the world of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and one is set in the world of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. There is one that is a retelling of "Tom Tit Tot", one about Mary Queen of Scots, and one about the friendship between a Jewish doctor and a fairy. All of them are utterly, utterly lovely.

Those who have read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell will be familiar with Susanna Clarke’s Austean writing style. What I love about her stories is that they are delightful, yes – but dangerous as well. They are daring and dark, and they feel old in an unsettling sort of way. She writes about people being spirited away to a faerie world that has more darkness and decay than glamour. She writes about young ladies dancing to fairy music until their feet bleed. She writes about people being transported from their beds to obscure towns to build bridges in the middle of the night. She writes about dangerous magic with unpredictable results.

The result is a collection of wonderful stories that are told in the elaborate language of Victorian fairy tales but are nevertheless not sugary in the least. Susanna Clarke’s stories read like old folklore. They take us back to a time when Faerie and its inhabitants were dangerous, were feared. These are, we are told, “most emphatically not the sort of fairy Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dogson hoped to find at the bottom of their gardens.”

A few words now on some of my favourite stories: the story set in the world of Stardust is “The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse”, and it was the only story in this collection that I was already familiar with. Since I wrote about it here last year, I will just add that it was a pleasure to revisit it.

“On Lickerish Hill” is a retelling of "Tom Tit Tot", an English fairy tale similar to Rumpelstiltskin. It’s written in Olde Englishe, and it’s told in a way that, for me, never allowed this storytelling device to become overdone. A taste:
“A Pharisee?” sayz Mr. Aubrey. “What doe you meane, child?”
“They live on Lickerish Hill,” sayz I, “Or under it. I doe not know which. They pinche dairymaides blacke and blewe. Other times they sweepe the floor, drinke the creame and leave silver pennies in shoes. They putte on white cappes, crie Horse and Hattock, flie through the aire on Bitts of Strawe – generally to the Kinge of France’s wine-cellar where they drinke the wine out of silver cups and then off to see a wicked man hanged – which person they may save if they have a minde to it."
I've seen others mention that the spelling got on their nerves , and while I can see how that could happen, for me the story ended at just the right moment, and so it never got to be too much.

“The Ladies of Grace Adieu” is one of the stories set in the world of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. The ladies of the title are Mrs Field, Miss Tobias and Miss Pabringer, and in this story they meet the famous magician Jonathan Strange. Those who have read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell might remember how Jonathan Strange was eager to have his clergy brother-in-law moved from Glocestershire. This story explains why, while also alerting one to the dangers of dismissing female magic.

“Mrs Mabb” is probably my favourite story in the collection. It recounts how a young lady, Miss Venetia Moore, saves her beloved Captain Fox from the clutches of the queen of Faerie by following the rules of that strange land to fight back, even while the whole town doubts her sanity.

"Mr Simonelli or The Fairy Widower", told through extracts from the journals of Mr Simonelli, tells us how he met a certain John Hollyshoes in Derbyshire, an odd character whose true nature the reader quickly guesses. This, however, does not put an end to the surprises this story holds.

"Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge was Built at Thoresby" is the story about the friendship between a fairy, Tom Brightwind, and a Jewish doctor, and it's complete with delicious Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrellish footnotes.

I think I’ll stop here, but I could go on. I enjoyed each and every one of these stories. This book made me want to read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, all 800 pages of it, all over again.

One last thing: as if everything I’ve said so far wasn’t enough, the book's charm is considerably increased (yes, such a thing is possible) by Charles Vess’ gorgeous illustrations. A must have.

At Susanna Clarke’s website, you can read the whole of "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse" and get a taste of "John Uskglass", the other story set in the world of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. As you might have guessed, this is a story about the Raven King.

Other Blog Reviews:
Stainless Steel Droppings
Stuff to Read
Once Upon a Bookshelf
A Stripped Armchair
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On
where troubles melt like lemon drops

(Let me know if I missed yours.)


  1. I'm sure you know that you're making me want to go dig this out the stacks right now, don't you?!! Quick question...would you recommend reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell first, or doesn't it much matter? I was thinking of reading JS&Mr.N for RIP this year anyway, but I think its massiveness scares me a bit.

  2. Wow! This sounds like an absolutely delightful book. I've not read any Susanna Clarke yet, but I've got Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell on my TBR Challenge pile. Soon!

  3. I read this one probably about a year or so ago, and loved it. Clarke truly is an amazing story teller, and knows how to draw the reader in so well.

  4. I've been saving up for this for some time now, hahaha! Although thanks to Mr. Gaiman I was able to read the Duke's story way, way back as well :)

  5. Oh Nymeth you are a temptress, I have both Susanna Clarke books in my tbr pile and of course I'm now thinking they should clamber to the top....

  6. I must confess that I thought that this was a direct sequel to Jonathan Strange and therefore because I haven't read that, I haven't picked this one up yet!

  7. I loved this one too, especially Mrs. Mabb! :D

  8. Debi: I don't think it matters, no. The stories set in the world of JS&MN can be understood without having read the novel. This will give you a good taste of what her writing is like. And I know what you mean about being scared of huge books!

    Terri B, I hope you enjoy her writing!

    Court: She really is :)

    Lightheaded, I really think you'll enjoy it!

    brideofthebookgod, I look forward to seeing what you think of her books :)

    Marg: Nope - even those two stories are not exactly sequels. They happen either at the same time as or before the events of JS&MN. I hope you enjoy this one!

    Eva: I'm not at all surprised to hear it! I can see how this is a very Eva book :P

  9. I always think that everyone has read this one already :p But I'm glad you've read it now and that you've enjoyed it! I loved everything about this book and it's one of my favorite books on my shelf. It feels like one of those ancient 19th century fairy tale books even though it was just published last year. It's just perfect. Is it your copy or did you have to return it to the library? That would be so sad to have to return this one :(

  10. It is a lovely book, isn't it? I read 3 of the stories outloud to my wife on Father's Day simply because they had been on my mind and I hadn't read aloud to her in awhile. She loved each and every one. I will no doubt read the rest to her in the near future.

  11. I'm just in the middle of reading this... but I'm taking my time with it. I've read the first two stories and absolutely loved them. The title story has made me very eager to read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell as I have a feeling I would love it. Nice review even if I didn't read all of it for fear of spoilers.

  12. I have a copy of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell that hasn't ever made it to the top of Mt. TBR. From your review, it looks like I need to get to it and some of her other books!

  13. Chris: It's my copy, fortunately! This one's definitely a keeper! I would hate to have to part with it. I don't know what took me so long to read it, really...I just knew I was going to love it! I also don't know why my search didn't come up with your review or Eva's or Court's, but I added them all to my list now. I'm not surprised you all loved this one too :D

    Carl: It really is. Being read these lovely stories by your spouse must be quite an experience! I can imagine how delighted Mary must have been :)

    Cath: I really look forward to your final thoughts on it! And yes, if you love these stories, it's safe to say you'd love JS&MN too.

    Jessica: She only has published these two so far, and I adored them both. I hope you enjoy them too :)

  14. Sounds great--I have Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell on my shelf but I'm scared of the length. ;) AND I picked up Stardust on Friday. I began to read it to hubby, but he wasn't really all that interested (we've both seen the movie and I don't think the book really lends itself to being read aloud as much as Ender's Game does). I'll have to keep this one in mind after I finally get around to reading that big fat chunkster.

  15. I've always wanted to read this one , because of the cover (:P), and thanks to Carl and you, I know I was right to be attracted to it. But I've ended up mooching Jonathan Strange for some reason so I'll have to read that first!

  16. Trish, sorry your hubbie wasn't getting into it because I have read it aloud to my wife and I think it really does lend itself to that...maybe not as much as after you've seen the film though.

  17. Trish: I'm sorry to hear your husband wasn't too interested in Stardust...but hopefully you'll enjoy it yourself!

    Valentina: Jonathan Strange is a GREAT mooch! I hope you enjoy it. And yes, the cover of this one is just gorgeous :)

  18. Once again, you're spot on in you review - "What I love about her stories is that they are delightful, yes – but dangerous as well."
    These stories DO feel dangerous!
    I especially love Tom Tit Tot - it's so much fun to read aloud!

  19. Ken: I don't think I'd ever be able to pull off the Olde Englishe correctly, but it must be lots of fun to read aloud indeed :D

  20. Great review, Nymeth! I really enjoyed Jonathan Strange and mr. Norrell, but I haven't had a chance to read this short story collection. My husband has, however, and he really recommends it.

    Susanna Clarke has a way of making me feel like I'm right there inside her story.

  21. Oh I really need to get to this sometime soon-ish. It promises to be such fun to read! Thanks for the taster. :)

  22. Literary Feline: As a fan of Jonathan Strange you'll love this too for sure. And yes, she really does!

    Tanabata: It is lots of fun :)

  23. I think this is on my list to read next month and I am really looking forward to it. I have read Mr Simonelli or The Fairy Widower in another collection (the last Datlow/Windling Adult Fairy Tales book - even more of a reason for you to get and read them!) as well as Jonathan Strange and really enjoyed them. Do you think I should read Stardust before this collection? I have seen the film but not yet read the book.


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