Respectable Magic

By Emma Louise Backe

Magic has returned to England. This past summer, two shows in particular dealt explicitly with the problem of magic, Penny Dreadful and the BBC miniseries Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2015), yet from very different perspectives on the dimensions and nature of magic in regards to gender. I have written previously about the cultural history of women and witchcraft and the resurgence of the figure of the witch as a feminist symbol, yet both shows complicate and expand upon these theories. While the practice of magic in Susanna Clarke’s literary adaptation remains under the control of the white male aristocracy, and women largely become the pawns of spells gone awry, the second season of Penny Dreadful explicitly orients the practice of witchcraft as an inherently female activity, illustrating the ambiguities between sacred and profane magic, the penumbra cast by dueling sensibilities of justice and duty. Both shows traverse between the darkness and the light, exploring the spaces left when categories of good and evil collapse, while using the profession of magic to delineate the boundaries between propriety, decency and social expectations.

The BBC’s production of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2015) was adapted from Susanna Clarke’s novel of the same name. The book itself is a historical palimpsest, each chapter containing copious footnotes and references in an attempt to detail and document the enormous romantic history of English magic that lies at the crux of the conflict between the two remaining magicians in England. At the beginning of the miniseries, it is believed that magic has left the mores and rolling hills of England, and should therefore be understood as a purely theoretical pursuit. Gentlemen gather at The Learned Society of York Magicians, where they speak about magic in abstraction. The practice of magic has fallen into disrepute and is considered nothing more than scandalous chicanery conducted by common street crooks. When Gilbert Norrell reveals that he can indeed perform magic, and wants to restore “respectable” magic to the kingdom, his vendetta against street magicians and the rendering of magical services to entice the English aristocracy is entirely wrapped up in the class politics of the 1800’s. In order to be accepted as a gentleman and a magician, Norrell rather recalcitrantly accrues a group of obsequious admirers who serve as his social diplomats, engaging in the pleasantries and high society politics Norrell needs to become the King’s magician. Meanwhile, Jonathan Strange, whose wife Arabella instructs him to find a profession to occupy his time—although he has the privilege to be simply employed by his family name and title—subsequently discovers the gift of magic. With enough of a pedigree and practical skill in magic, Norrell decides to take on Strange as a pupil, instructing him less in the application of magic, than in the theoretical foundations of it. Strange is recruited by the English army to demonstrate the respectability and value of magicians, yet refrains from the use of particular kinds of magic. When asked by Lord Wellington whether a magician can kill a man by magic, Strange responds, deploying the ideology of Norrell, “I suppose a magician might, but a gentlemen never could” (2015), demonstrating the conflation between magic and contemporary class values. Indeed, although Norrell’s servant John Childermass is an adept magician, Norrell and his biographer, Henry Lascelles, refuse him the title of magician due to his station within society.

Part of Norrell’s vendetta against the wrong kinds of magic emanates from the disappearance of John Uskglass, otherwise known as the Raven King, who was the greatest magician in English history, yet shut down the King’s Roads that led to the Other Lands when he vanished. Since his disappearance, the Raven King attained mythic significance among the street magicians performing magic for pay, but fell into disrepute among those that studied theoretical magic. The Raven King’s power was thought to stem from his partnerships with fairies—vain, conniving and often-dangerous creatures who nonetheless helped him to control the natural forces of the landscape and its elements. By the time Norrell has attained his place within the magical aristocracy, he argues that such magic is disreputable and should therefore be eschewed by proper English magicians. Yet, in an attempt to ingratiate himself to London society, he unintentionally elicits the help of a fairy to bring Sir Walter Pole’s wife, Emma, back to life. In so doing, he has broken the codes of propriety he established for proper English magic and in fact dooms Lady Pole to servitude to the fairy. She is forced to spend half of her life in Lost-Hope, a prisoner in the domain of the Other Lands. Her experiences in Lost-Hope begin to bleed into her waking hours, driving her to madness and embarrassing her husband. The scandal of her mental deterioration becomes so great for her husband that she is forcibly removed to an asylum run by two formerly theoretical magicians. Not unlike the condition of hysteria, she is believed to be mad and Norrell refuses to acknowledge the part his magic played in her condition. She is one of the first victims of Norrell’s bid for aristocracy, forced to perform parts she is ill suited for in both waking and sleep.

Arabella, Strange’s wife, too falls prey to the use of disreputable magic. When Strange attempts to summon the same fairy Norrell employed, he offends the fairy’s own sense of entitlement and decorum. The fairy retaliates by abducting Arabella and replacing her with an enchanted moss-oak Strange believes to be his wife. Arabella is subsequently held captive in Lost-Hope with Lady Pole, stripped of her memories and her agency. It falls to the gentlemen magicians to rescue these women, passive subjects of English aristocracy and fairy magic, both realms in which women are denied any control over their lives. Once Lady Pole has been released from her servitude to the fairy, she tells her husband that she plans to leave, swearing that she will not trade one kind of imprisonment for another. Even after Norrell and Strange have defeated the fairy, reopened the doors to the Other Lands, and restored English magic, there remains a sense that class and gender stereotypes prevail. In the final episode, The Learned Society of York Magicians meet to discuss the new terms of magic, yet only one woman is present. With the English countryside coursing with magic and the disappearance of the two magicians, it would seem to suggest that there should no longer be custodians of magic, but rather that it is a power everyone can claim. The series therefore concludes with the opportunity to democratize and equalize the dimensions of spellwork and prophesy, yet only vaguely hints at a woman’s place within this new vortex of power.

While Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2015) conflate magic and the role of the gentleman in English aristocracy, the province of magic belongs entirely to women in the second season of Penny Dreadful (2015). The storyline pits two versions of witchcraft against one another, the Day-Walkers and the Night-Comers. Vanessa Ives represents the Day-Walkers, a breed of witch who believes in the power and benevolence of God, following the moral compass provided by Christianity and accruing strength from His divine presence. Evelyn Poole leads the Night-Comers, a coven of witches who owe their allegiance to the Devil and have ostensibly abandoned the ethical and social demands of Victorian England. While Vanessa and Evelyn are pitted against one another, Penny Dreadful does a much better job than Strange of demonstrating the slippery ethics that distinguish good magic from bad. It would be fair to say that Vanessa has been the reluctant mistress of the Devil and struggled throughout the first season with the demon she believes to live inside her. In an attempt to understand the dueling elements of dark and light within her psyche, Vanessa comes to live with the Cut-Witch, a Day-Walker with the onerous job of performing abortions for the village women. Though she performs a necessary duty for her community, and saves the lives of many women and girls, she is also despised and feared by her clients and the men in the surrounding area. Relegated to the marshes and the fringes of society, she is treated and represented as a villain, despite her status as the custodian of “good” magic. She is ultimately condemned and burned by the very women she operated on, passing the responsibilities of her title to Vanessa.

In accordance with much of the mythology surrounding witches, Evelyn uses her sexuality to manipulate the men around her in order to fulfill the wishes of her master, Lucifer. He wants Vanessa to forswear her faith in God and join her master as the other Night-Comers have done. Yet the entreaty Evelyn uses belies how much Vanessa has felt trapped within Victorian society. She promises Vanessa that she will no longer be judged, or forced to hide who she truly is. The sweet seduction of Satan therefore lies in the promise of freedom from otherwise stultifying social expectations, the opportunity to live in a world that no longer demands the performance of self for the sake of social niceties. Lucifer even attempts to persuade Vanessa by revealing her heart’s desire—a “normal life” with Ethan Chandler and a brood of children. Yet Vanessa laughs at the proposition, saying, “You offer me a normal life. Why do you think I want that anymore? I know what I am” (2015). She realizes that she could never pursue the domestic life society expects of her, nor would she find contentment or relief under the rule of another master. Instead, the scorpion, as she is called by the Cut-Wife, chooses a third path—she destroys Evelyn and the witch’s avatar for Satan, yet abandons her God as well, pursuing the interstice between good and evil where she alone determines the limits of ethics and morality.

While not magic in a conventional sense of the word, the same subversive gender politics emerge between Victor Frankenstein and his newest creation, Lily, formerly known as Brona Croft. Lily’s resurrection came at the behest of John Clare (Frankenstein’s original monster), even though both John and Victor desire a companion, a sexual partner for their shame and loneliness. Lily’s sole purpose is therefore to serve as the subject of their sexual and romantic desires, even if Victor doesn’t initially acknowledge his attraction. During her adolescence as a creation, Lily frets over the codes and expectations of fine English society, worried that she will embarrass Victor with her “country” ways. Yet as she matures, and achieves a level of self-awareness, she begins to push against gifts of corsets and heels, noting, with irony, the ways that such garments keep women from exerting themselves. “What would be the danger if they did?” she asks Victor, who responds, “They’d take over the world. The only way we men prevent that is by keeping women corseted…in theory…and in practice” (2015). This exchange informs her transformation from passive female subject to a self-identified god, embittered by a world in which women must endlessly perform for the pleasure of other men. In a beautiful stand-off with John Clare, Lily exclaims, “We flatter our men with our pain. We bow before them. We make ourselves dolls for their amusement. We lose our dignity in corsets and high shoes and gossip and the slavery of marriage. And our reward for this service? Back of the hand. The face turned to the pillow […] Never again will I kneel to any man. Now they shall kneel to me” (2015). If death cannot even claim domain over Lily, why should she adhere to the sexist confines of a patriarchal society? Even though Victor was the one who enchanted Lily with a second life, she reclaims dominion over how she chooses to live it, reappropriating that magical power for herself alone. Throughout the second season of Penny Dreadful, although the men believe that they control the system, it’s actually the magical women in the background who are pulling the strings while systematically threading a new institutional model of power. As the Cut-Witch slyly notes, everyone’s a monster, but it’s the women who principally contend with the monstrosity of a Victorian society that delineates the female sex into either angels or demons.

Both Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and Penny Dreadful dwell in the land of magic, yet the two shows employ spells and sorcery through a clearly gendered lens. In Strange, women are merely the subjects of magic gone awry, while Penny Dreadful’s witches use magic to subvert social roles. In both cases, however, we are called to question what constitutes respectable magic, who has the privilege to decide the uses and abuses of magic, and to whom magic can ever truly belong.


Works Cited 

Backe, Emma Louise (2014). “Something Wicked This Way Comes: Witches and Modern Women.” The Geek Anthropologist.

Clarke, Susanne (2004). Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. New York: Bloomsbury.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2015). BBC America.

Logan, John (2014- ). Penny Dreadful. Showtime.


About Emma Louise Backe

PhD student in Medical Anthropology at the George Washington University and independent consultant, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

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