Narratively rich books aren't a new thing, we've seen them come by for ages. Novels like Winter's Tale or anything by Neal Stephenson revolve mainly around detailed depictions of wonderful surroundings and colorful people. I could list many more stories where essentially nothing happens but where we're driving to keep on going. So why single out Jonathan Strange and The Historian? It seems that those books were specifically designed to engage and immerse readers rather than to drive then forward towards a conclusion. How does it work? What alchemical methods of writing are at work here? Here's a short excerpt from Jonathan Strange:
An elderly gentleman with faint blue eyes and faintly-coloured clothes (called either Hart or Hunt - Mr Segundus could never quite catch the name) faintly said that it did not matter in the least whether any body expected it or not. A gentleman could not do magic.. Magic was what street sorcerers pretended to do in order to rob children of their pennies. Magic (in the practical sense) was much fallen off. It had low connexions. It was the bosom companion of unshaven faces, gypsies, house-breakers; the frequenter of dingy rooms with dirty yellow curtains. Oh no! A gentleman could not do magic. A gentleman might study the history of magic (nothing could be nobler) but he could not do any. The elderly gentleman looked with faint, fatherly eyes at Mr Segundus and said that he hoped Mr Segundus had not been trying to cast spells.
I find it difficult to really put my finger on precisely why this works so well but I do see a couple of patterns. First of all the text is written to be narrated, meaning to be read out loud. Normally when we read a novel the voice telling the story is neutral. Instead, you, the reader, voices the narration and you add your own inflections and colour. In Jonathan Strange the author has almost explicitly added certain inflections and tone and done so in very clever way to entice us to read the text as if someone other than ourselves narrates or voices the story. Some might be uncomfortable by this and read the text as if they are being treated like a small child, and I can empathize with that, there is a certain 'being spoken to' sensation as you work through the text.
But there is more going on. This fictional novel takes place around the beginning of the 19th century. We can tell that by the use of words such as 'connexions'. Other smaller bits of text here and there gives us hints that we're not quite talking the here and now but notice how we're not reading pure Victorian prose either. Historical references and customs such as language use has been glossed over and polished while at the same time not losing that sense of reading dated fiction. We could combine the the text is historically treated with the first observation that the language has been chosen to sound narrated. In both cases the choice of words and the sentence construction is deliberately smooth and mellifluous.
As a final observation I would like to point out that the narrative contains a rather rapid wavering back and forth between various emotions. Not that other stories are that balanced, we wouldn't read them if they didn't take us on an emotional voyage. But in this small piece of text we're thrown back and forward quite a lot in short succession. We see something similar in the Historian, which at least in the beginning replaces the deliberate narrator's voice with an unfortunate chicklit tone. Luckily that sensation disappears after a few chapters. Take a look at the excerpt below:
At this point, my sense of guilt—and something else, too—made me put the letter hastily back in its envelope, but I thought about it all that day and all the next. When my father returned from his latest trip, I looked for an opportunity to ask him about the letters and the strange book. I waited for him to be free, for us to be alone, but he was very busy in those days, and something about what I had found made me hesitate to approach him. Finally I asked him to take me on his next trip. It was the first time I had kept a secret from him and the first time I had ever insisted on anything.
If we look at the very first sentence we could split it into: Guilt-Uncertainty-Fear-Pensiveness, and in that order. The effect this has is that we look to the author to give us guidance as to how we should actually think and feel about the text. The Historian is a historical novel and that was a clever choice because it allows the author to fall back on hard facts when this constant wavering gets too much and we can slip back into emotional overtones when the amount of historical detail becomes too much. I've noticed that in The Historian those two states are kept fairly separate, something Dan Brown doesn't do as sophisticated in his novels. In The Historian we also see the same language mechanisms outlined for Jonathan Strange and both novels feel eerily similar and only differ in the context and subject of the story.
There must be much more going on in the two chosen stories than the points I mentioned here but they are not as easy to nail down and describe. In fact they raise more questions than provide answers. For example in Jonathan Strange entire episodes from known history are rewritten to suit the narrative without anyone complaining that it didn't happen that way. How was that lack of expectation setup? It can't be the fact that you know it's a novel about magic, since many films and novels have reams of people who go into detailed rants about what's wrong with it.
To finish off I would like to add a small final observation and, which might be completely insignificant. It is that both novels were written by women. It could be that I haven't done a better examination and that I should add Neal Stephenson and Mark Helprin to balance things out but it does make me curious because there are a lot more distinctions between the male version of these types of narratives and the female versions of the same.