The BBC has once more proved the worth of the licence fee with the stunning adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.
Now we’re all had time to digest the series, I wanted to think on the depictions of “madness” in the adaptation and what writers can learn about depicting mental illness, particularly in the fantasy genre.
SPOILERS FOR THE SERIES AND THE NOVEL – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED
The relationship between magic and madness
“Magic cannot cure madness.” – Gilbert Norrell
From the beginning, Strange and Norrell was explicit in its discussion of madness and magic, with an alternate early nineteenth century viewpoint. When Sir Walter Pole asks Mr Norrell to cure his wife of madness, Norrell is firm on the point. However, given what we know of Norrell’s role in Lady Pole’s resurrection and his subsequent distancing from fairy magic, Norrell may well be lying. However, his efforts with Strange on curing the King’s madness seem to uphold this assertion.
Jonathan Strange, much later in the book and series, identifies that the King’s madness enables him to see fairies. He then tries to bottle madness so that he too may see the creatures.
Throughout the narrative, we see characters who are labelled as “mad” by others but their individual situations are quite different. Some provide a fascinating interpretation of mental illness, and some are more problematic.
The curse of Lady Pole
“This is madness-”
“Madness is what it is not.”
– Stephen Black and Lady Pole
By most definitions, Lady Pole is not mad. Her situation typifies the idea that insanity is a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world. This phrase is attributed to RD Laing, a psychiatrist who believed in the lived experience of mental illness above the biological explanation.
When I have previously written on psychosis, I described a person unable to distinguish fantasy from reality. In Strange and Norrell, the writers take this a step further – a mad person can see both reality and the fantastical world of Fairy.
Lady Pole is labelled as mad because she cannot live in both worlds and she speaks nonsense instead of the truth about her situation, due to the fairy rose at her lips. Due to her psychological torment, she attempts suicide and then tries to exact revenge on Norrell. She is rewarded with confinement, restraint, sedation and finally institutionalisation. Her recovery occurs when she is removed from Lost-hope and returned wholly to “reality”, where she decides to leave her husband for better treatment elsewhere.
Mad King George
“Do not be angry! I am a king, you are a king – let’s all be kings together!” – The King
King George is an altogether different case. For one, he is based on an historical figure – George III. The cause of his madness is unknown, but has been described as both melancholy and depression and was possibly related to porphyria, a blood disorder when accumulating chemicals cause various complications including mental illness.
In the adaptation, George III is portrayed as blind, nonsensical and able to communicate with The Gentleman. He is summarily kidnapped through a mirror for Stephen to try to kill him. However, Strange manages to return him to his chambers. The insinuation is that the King is mad and he can therefore see fairies, not that his madness is related to magic.
In the novel, Strange attends the King alone, in defiance of his asylum jailers. They are an interesting study of nineteenth-century alienism, with their three principles of intimidation, isolation and restraint.
Mrs Delgado aka the crazy cat lady
“…a great wind of madness howled through her…” – Strange and Norrell.
It will come as no surprise to regular readers that this particular portrayal is the most problematic for me. A woman who adopts all the habits of a cat while surrounded by them, played for both revulsion and humour, was never going to sit well.
This does resemble the rare clinical condition of clinical lycanthropy, its name deriving from the idea of werewolves. It is believed to be on the psychosis spectrum, with the delusions and hallucinations of the creature the person believes they have turned into.
And Jonathan Strange’s treatment for this woman’s condition? To turn her into a cat. Words, I do not have them.
In one of Strange and Norrell’s infamous footnotes, the novel narrator gives a potted history of Mrs Delgado’s life, with a reference to her descent into madness. It says that she lived quite alone, never speaking to another living soul, and she lost all her languages except Cat. As a precipitating factor for madness, I cannot endorse it.
Jonathan Strange’s quest for madness
“Everything he thought before, everything he knew, everything he had been was swept away in a great floor of confused emotion and sensation.” – Strange and Norrell.
And, finally, we come to the depiction of madness in our protagonist. This particular brand of madness is part organic and part magical, contained in one dead mouse. Strange contrives to distill madness by putting a magical mouse in a bottle of water and taking drops of it to see The Gentleman.
Preceding this experiment, Strange tells Fiona Greysteel about the magicians who consorted with madmen and endeavoured to become mad themselves. Fiona tells him that old nonsense about creative people being mad and how jolly it is. And Strange lauds her for it.(She does not provide this encouragement in the novel.)
When Strange first ingests the mouse, the adaptation shows a rather lurid representation of his head apparently being torn in many diffrent directions. I was uncomfortable reminded of the idea of multiple personality disorder rather than a psychosis.
The book takes a different tack, where the writer has the advantage of sharing Strange’s thoughts on the experience – a burst of concentrated madness, all different kinds of it, bundled up in one dead mouse. It takes in everything from hypersensitivity of the senses to persecution to dysphoria.
When Strange moderates his experience, he becomes convinced people have candles inside their heads. When it wears off, he is troubled:
“He found he could no longer recall whether people had candles in their heads or not. He knew there was a world of difference between these two notions: one was sane and the other was not, but he could not for the life of him remember which was which.”
What’s interesting about this observation is that it’s very like what happens when people start to recover from psychosis. They often do not snap back to reality, but take a journey there through a period of being unsure of what is real or what is fiction.
Strange’s other experiences involve pineapples and wandering within his own mind, one bizarre and an object for humour, and the other resembling a catatonia or depressive ruminations.
Learning points for writers
What is evident in both the novel and adaptation is that madness is presented both as a dysfunction of the mind, and an illusion caused by magic or induced magically. When exploring either of these points, one gets the impression that the writers are grappling with a chimaera – we’re not sure exactly what it is, but it is large and vicious and frightening.
I don’t necessarily disagree with that. But mental illness is real in our world – it is not caused by magic any more than it is caused by demonic possession or abandonment by God.
Good points for writers to take from this is the sensible explanation of how madness and magic interact from the writers. They lay it out very clearly. We also experience vividly Lady Pole’s situation and how frightening that can be. In the novel, the depiction of the asylum keepers of the King is very well done.
One negative is laughing at the mad antics of the characters. Mental illness can be humourous and it can be alleviated with laughter, but if you choose this route, you are taking a well-trodden path. Just like the mad scientist or the violent schizophrenic, it reinforces a negative stereotype.
The other is this slightly alarming idea of seeking madness. Nineteenth century poets did seek it out, mostly by taking mind-altering substances – it didn’t work out particularly well for them. Madness does not facilitate genius or creativity, with the dubious exception of hypomania and mania, but those are not sustainable and often deteriorate. There are no real consequences to what Strange does, and I think that’s a missed opportunity.
What are your thoughts on Strange and Norrell and madness? What did the adaptation or novel get right or wrong? Would you do anything differently? Has it inspired your own work? Tell us in the comments!