The Ladies of Grace Adieu is a short story collection released shortly after Susanna Clarke’s stellar first novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. The nine stories collected here mostly take place in and around the world Clarke laid out in Norrell, a Regency-era England in which magic and faerie are very real (and dangerous) concepts, well-known if not outright feared by most people. Strange and Norrell are the two great magicians of their age, protecting Britain from Napoleon’s Grande Armée with ingenious spellcraft while feuding with each other in various journals and newspaper op-eds.
As such, Clarke’s language and dramatic situations are very much in keeping with those of Jane Austen and other authors of that era in English literature, although the extra fun part of Norrell and a few of the later stories in Grace Adieu is the fact that they’re annotated with footnotes provided by a scholar who lives outside of the main action. The collection also has an introduction from a professor of “Sidhe Studies” from the University of Aberdeen, who comments on the stories with scholarly precision. As many of the books I’ve raved about on this site will attest (S., Infinite Jest, Dune), I’m a big fan of this sort of metatextual technique. Mainly, though, this collection really made me want to read the full novel again. There’s apparently going to be a BBC miniseries in the near future, so I’ll have to read it before then.
Strangely enough, the cover copy for the collection fails to mention what I think is one of the biggest selling features, the fact that it contains art for each story by Charles Vess. Most people will know him best for his working with Neil Gaiman on Stardust (which has a tie-in story in this volume, “The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse”), but I liked his work best on Spider-Man: Spirits of the Earth, an original graphic novel from the early Nineties. The art pieces he provides are very beautiful, and Vess’ ethereal and precise linework is an excellent complement to Clarke’s magical, elliptical tale-spinning. My favourite pieces of his are the “great Stagge” in the Rumplestiltskin pastiche “On Lickerish Hill” and the frontispieces for “The Ladies of Grace Adieu” and “Mr Simonelli or the Fairy Widower”.
The titular story starts off Grace Adieu, and provides a direct link to events hinted at in the novel. At the heart of the story is a conflict between the analytical, scientific magic practiced by Strange and Norrell, and the more primal and earth-bound version, tied to the faerie realm, used by country ladies. Three well-to-do women of Gloucestershire take it upon themselves to settle some scores using these techniques, while Jonathan Strange can only look on in awe. I enjoyed the male-female binary presented in this story, which is good because the rest of the book is seemingly all about that very concept. This is a nice counterpoint to the male-centric magic found in the novel, and I especially liked how all the women in these stories, while very powerful, still acted in ways someone from the Regency era would understand.
The first four stories in the book were basically all right, but it wasn’t until the fifth story, an epistolary called “Mr Simonelli or the Fairy Widower”, that I really started to take notice. I think the thing that drew me most to this one and some of the ones that came after, “Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby” and “John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner” is the way Clarke shows the differences between fairies and humans through their wildly different actions and beliefs. In Clarke’s world, high-ranking fairy princes and princesses are gorgeous, haughty creatures who play around in the world of men basically because they think we’re hilarious, while their lowborn servants are misshapen monsters like pookas and brownies. The effect is very reminiscent of the way the highborn gentry in Austen often carry themselves in opposition to their lessers, as they too are uninterested in day-to-day concerns due to their immense wealth and power. I think Clarke is stealthily making a powerful statement about class with the faerie menagerie she has on display, and again this makes me want to go back to the novel to confirm.
Overall, I would recommend The Ladies of Grace Adieu to people who enjoy Regency culture and fairy tales, but with the caveat that I think it only works in concert with the novel. I feel like Neil Gaiman fans would also like the book, as would fans of Willingham and Buckingham’s fantastic Fables comics.