Gilbert Norrell

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Gilbert Norrell was the first practical magician of the Revival of English Magic---the resurgence of magic after an absence of over two centuries. His significant contributions included services to the Kingdom (particularly the Admiralty), tutoring the magician Jonathan Strange, a subsequent collaboration with Strange, and a part in the defeat of the gentleman with the thistle-down hair.

Having lived for many years retired and wholly occupied in furthering his studies Norrell was noted for a sort of mauvaise honte in polite company, which is perhaps why he allowed first Christopher Drawlight and then Henry Lascelles to gain an ascendancy over him; he deferred too much to their judgment as men of the world[4, 5;7]. He was in any case, according to Sir Walter Pole, a poor judge of men[50]. Norrell was also known for his quiet, fussy, and reserved nature; his precise scholarship; his magnificent collection of magical works; and his hatred of the Raven King's magic. He spent many years amassing all books of magic and stifling theoretical magic, partly out of jealousy of any rival and partly in an attempt to extirpate knowledge of the Raven King. After his partnership with Strange he reformed some of these views, and together they explored new, powerful forms of magic.

Early life

Little is known about Norrell's early life, in part because of his own reserved disposition. Most known references to his past are vague, and even his birth year is unknown. What follows is some speculation concerning his age. He seems to have considered three or four years to be a short amount of time and, in particular, that a student of magic would learn little in that period [25]. Furthermore, when the street magician Vinculus claimed in 1807 that he had been waiting for a practical magician to appear for over 20 years, Norrell seems to think that indeed, he would have been ready then [13]. Thus, we can conclude that Norrell had studied magic for perhaps 25 to 35 years before 1807. By his own account, Norrell began his study of magic at the age of 12 [28], so overall, we can place his age in 1807 between roughly 37 and 47 years, making his birth year between 1760 and 1770. A birth year of around 1760 is the more likely of the two, since he appears to be "perhaps fifty" in February 1808, when Jonathan Strange performs his first work of magic, One Spell to Discover what My Enemy is doing Presently [22]. Of course, it is also possible that Mr Norrell is one of those gentlemen who appears a good deal older than he is.

Before the Revival he evidently spent a substantial portion of his time on magic, for example, devoting "for many months ... eight hours out of every twenty-four to studying (Belasis)" [1]. He also apparently expended considerable effort and money obtaining as many books of magic as possible [41] and stifling competition [37]; and his diligent pursuit of magic seems to have been substantially funded by a large inheritance he received from his uncle, Haythornthwaite [4]. Curiously, in view of his later frequently-expressed contempt for John Uskglass, he admits privately to Jonathan Strange that for a time in his youth he was utterly devoted to the King, to the extent of expending ten whole years of his life in a futile attempt to establish contact with him[39]. But there, perhaps it is not so very curious after all: love that is spurned has often turned to hate.

As far as was consistent with his character as a gentleman, Norrell appears to have shunned social events; perhaps meeting his neighbours only "twice or thrice a quarter" [4]. His residence for presumably most of this period was Hurtfew Abbey, his estate in Yorkshire. There with unremitting toil and patience he forged himself into the first practical magician England had known for centuries.

Attitude toward other magicians

Mr Norrell’s relations with other magicians are always difficult. So querulous, jealous and fearful a man could only see them as threats. As mentioned above, before the Revival he went to considerable effort to stifle magical knowledge in England. Many theoretical magicians, once they were so unfortunate as to attract his attention, soon found themselves magicians no longer as “Mr Norrell had their books, or had turned them out of their businesses or made them sign pernicious agreements or, in some other way, destroyed them” [37].

From the moment his periodical The Friends of English Magic began publication it contained numerous articles, written on Mr Norrell’s orders, vilifying in turn all learned societies of magicians, all street magicians, “child-prodigy-magicians,” and female magicians – indeed, “any other magicians whatsoever” [12]. Regarding street magicians he went so far as to encourage the creation of a Committee for Magical Acts in London which decreed that only Mr Norrell was allowed to perform magic within the city’s boundaries; this forced the city’s numerous vagabond magicians to leave the city and seek other employment. (Most gave up magic entirely and turned to thieving and begging, professions with which they were happily already acquainted [20].) As to female magicians, quite ignoring the histories of such famous magical ladies as Catherine of Winchester, Norrell condemned them entirely: “That members of the Female Sex should study magic at all is … a thing I am very much opposed to” [61].

Mr Norrell has a remarkable mental ability to both deny the possible existence of, while simultaneously fearing, any magician other than himself. This is revealed most clearly when he proposes reviving the Cinque Dragownes to prosecute the nefarious Drawlight. When reminded that legally the court required twelve magicians to act as judges, whereas there were only two in all England, he immediately states that other magicians could be found, this flatly contradicting "all that he had maintained for seven years”[37]. Early in his public career when Mr Norrell aimed to establish himself as the only magician in England he nevertheless feared constantly that others might appear. After Vinculus’s intrusion into his library he is so disturbed as to proclaim to Childermass that “Other magicians … plot my downfall!” [13]. And when Drawlight first mentions Mr Strange as a rival the information comes as “a terrible blow” to Norrell, and he immediately thinks of the great efforts he had gone to “to ensure there could be no rivals” [24].

Perhaps the best example of Mr Norrell’s ability at one and the same time to both acknowledge and deny the existence of other magicians is found in his relationship with his servant John Childermass. On the one hand he seems to be perfectly aware of Childermass’s abilities as a practical magician and yet – perhaps merely because Childermass is his servant – it seems impossible for Norrell to consider him a magician of any sort. When he orders Childermass to drive Vinculus out of London he gives him three spells to use for the purpose, clearly trusting he possesses sufficient skill to do so [20] and yet later, after Childermass is shot by Lady Pole, Mr Norrell indignantly demands to know why he had been performing Belasis’s Scopus, and complains bitterly of “servants who learn spells behind my back”! Childermass is forced sharply to remind Mr Norrell that he himself had taught him the spell many years earlier [46]. Furthermore, when Norrell hopes to revive the court of Cinque Dragownes to try those suspected of magical crimes, although he considers Childermass well versed enough in thaumaturgic law to suggest him to Lord Liverpool as an adviser to the projected court yet when reminded such a court would legally require the services of no fewer than twelve magicians he weakly suggests Lord Portishead and John Segundus. It seems not to occur to him that Childermass himself is a perfectly competent practical magician[37].

Norrell's low opinion of other magicians is, of course, not limited to living men. In his first meeting with Mr Honeyfoot and Mr Segundus he belittles, in rapid succession, the authors of several books of magic from the Argentine period, including Belasis’s Instructions itself [1]. Later Thomas Lanchester also falls from his favour: (“I find his writing is tainted with [the Aureates’] worst characteristics.... He is mystical, my lord! He is mystical!”) [13]. Even the greatest magicians of the Aureate age are vilified by Mr Norrell – particularly for their tendency towards mysticism, which he felt they had “imbibed from their fairy-servants” [46] – including, of course, the great Raven King himself (“There is no magician I detest more!”) [20].

In sum, as our chronicler makes clear, in addition to almost any possible living magician, Mr Norrell “had taken the measure of all of the dead [magicians] too and found them wanting” [1].

Rise and Revival

In January 1807 John Segundus and Mr Honeyfoot, seeking to discover the reason for the disappearance of practical magic, paid Mr Norrell a visit and there heard him declare that he, in fact, was a practical magician [1]. Segundus and Honeyfoot brought his claim to the attention of the Learned Society of York Magicians, and when the members imprudently challenged him to demonstrate his abilities [2] Mr Norrell obliged by animating the statues of the York Cathedral, performing the first widely known piece of magic for over two centuries [3][4]. (See The stones of York for details on this magic.) At the same time, he repaid the Society for its effrontery by holding them to the bargain they had made with him: should he prove himself a practical magician, they would abandon their studies. The Society consequently disbanded, and Mr Norrell snapped up its library.

An article in The Times, authored by Segundus at the instigation of Mr. Norrell's man of business, John Childermass, then brought Norrell to public notice. Keen to strike while the iron was hot, in early 1807 Norrell bought and moved into a house in London, in the fashionable environs of Hanover-square, [4]. Over the next few months, with the help of the sociable Christopher Drawlight and the clever Henry Lascelles, Norrell was soon well known to the London elite [5].

However, Norrell was unable to make himself useful for the government as he had intended. In October, he first presented his proposed plan of employment to Sir Walter Pole, a Minister of the Cabinet, who replied flatly that "[m]agic is not respectable, sir" [6]. Shortly after the encounter Miss Emma Wintertowne - Pole's fianceé and a very wealthy heiress - died two days before their marriage, leaving Pole in a most desperate situation. The man who might rescue his fortunes by restoring his lost bride to life would place Sir Walter under an obligation indeed! And so, after much deliberation, Norrell set aside his own principles and summoned a fairy to revive Miss Wintertowne [7][8].

To return the favour Sir Walter brought Norrell's plea to the attention of the other Ministers, who were in any case desperate for new methods of defeating the French [10]. In November, Norrell conjured naval fleets composed of rain and stationed them in front of various French ports, effectively paralyzing the French Navy for eleven days (until they realised the ships were not real) [11]. By December, Norrell was consistently aiding the government in the war effort, which raised him to "new heights of public greatness" [12].

In December 1807 Norrell was accosted by Vinculus, the street magician, who delivered a prophecy which apparently related to Norrell. He did not take the prophecy seriously at all, and in fact had Vinculus thrown out just as the recital was finishing. Despite the apparent accuracy of the prophecy, Norrell scornfully dismissed it at first as "this nonsense" and "impenetrable...ramblings"[13]: after a little reflection however he admits it is an "odd prophecy..there were one or two expressions which suggested great antiquity"[21]. This sounds as if his opinion of it had shifted somewhat; and the fact that shortly thereafter he sets Childermass on, first to drive Vinculus away and subsequently to pursue him to gain the book he had spoken of, also indicates he was giving the prophecy a little more weight.

Tutelage of Strange

In early 1808, Jonathan Strange began contemplating the study of magic [22]. His early progress is not well recorded, but in July 1809 he is known to have cast a summoning spell at the Shadow House, in an attempt to converse with 17th century magician Maria Absalom. However, his attempts were accidentally interrupted by John Segundus and Mr Honeyfoot who subsequently encouraged Strange to visit Norrell in London, so favourably impressed were they by his native talent and so convinced of Mr Norrell's offering him a hearty welcome. [23].

In September 1809 the visit was paid, although the impressions of both gentlemen on the other were lukewarm. Subsequent visits, however, made both men realise the benefits of such an acquaintance, and soon Strange became Norrell's first and only pupil [24]. Strange's progress was rapid, and master and pupil got along reasonably well. Nevertheless, it is known that Strange found Norrell's reserved nature irksome (Norrell would often hide his knowledge of topics he felt Strange was not ready for) [25].

Progress continued for over a year, until in late 1810 or early 1811, Strange was called upon to join the war effort against Napoleon [28]. Norrell was initially reluctant to relinquish his pupil so early on in his tutelage. However, it seems that the impending auction of the books from the Duke of Roxburghe's library compelled Norrell to let Strange go to war, in the hope it might prevent him from bidding on the books [28]. (Nevertheless, Strange's wife Arabella raised funds from relatives and friends and attempted to bid for the books on behalf of her husband. Norrell won every bid, leaving Arabella in tears. Furthermore, instead of revealing the nature or contents of the works (some of which were extremely rare) as was generally desired and expected, Norrell characteristically suppressed all mention of them [28].)


Little is known directly about Norrell's actions from Strange's departure until the end of the war in mid-1814, but it is presumed that he continued his studies and commissions as usual. One incident in early 1812 is worth mentioning. Norrell's servant John Childermass set out to discover more about Vinculus, the street magician and pseudo-prophet that had encountered Norrell early on in his London life. Childermass discovered that Vinculus' father, Clegg, had once stolen what seemed to be an ancient book, a work written by the Raven King himself. Norrell then revealed his surprisingly extensive knowledge on the subject, confirming that the book was very likely the famed Book of Magic, written in the King's Letters, the only known work by the Raven King himself. According to Childermass, Clegg tore apart and ate the book, page by precious page, shortly before fathering Vinculus. This seems to be the full extent of what Norrell knew about the book [30]. (As is discovered later by Childermass alone, the book was in fact imprinted on Vinculus' body at birth.)

In June 1814, Strange returned victorious, and met once again with Norrell. Due to Norrell's insistence, and despite his increased abilities and experience, he agreed to resume his pupilship under his former master [31].

Conflict with Strange

In November 1814, Strange was commissioned by some of the George III's sons to attend the insane monarch, and attempt to cure him by magic [32]. (Norrell had already turned down the offer.) His visit coincided with an attempted abduction of the King by the gentleman with the thistle-down hair; although almost overpowered, Strange at last thwarted the fairy by employing a powerful, abstract counterspell. This exposure to the sinister but exhilarating magic of fairies however bred a suspicion in Strange. He guessed now that Norrell was witholding information from him regarding the full nature of magic in England [33] and the nature of fairies also.

In November 1814, Strange encountered two brewers from Nottinghamshire, Tantony and Gatcombe, who claimed to be under his personal tutelage through correspondence. Finding he could not disabuse them of this odd belief, or even bring them to credit that he was who he said he was, Strange volunteered to undertake some magical feat that would prove his identity beyond doubt. He promptly walked into the nearest mirror and onto the King's Roads, where he travelled to Hampstead and discovered Christopher Drawlight in the midst of attmempting to carry out another false comission on behalf of Strange, this time for Mrs. Maria Bullworth. He later remarked to Colonel Grant that, with regards to the King's Roads, "all that Norrell and I have done is nothing in comparison" [36]. Norrell, however, later rebuked his pupil for undertaking the expedition without preparation or guidance from himself.

It seems the tension between the two magicians and Strange's desire to be freed from restraints contributed to the breaking of their collaboration. In January 1815, Strange published an article in the Edinburgh Review, a scathing attack on the recent Essay on the Extraordinary Revival of English Magic, &c by John Waterbury. The essay had been written (as Mr Strange well knew) under the direction of Norrell. In particular, the article lambasted Norrell's suppression of the Raven King from all magical consideration, and his blatant attempts to censor him from magical history. While the review was published anonymously, and even contained attacks on Strange himself, the identity of the author was widely known.

In early February, Strange met Norrell for the first time since the publication of the review. The interview was courteous; Norrell acknowledged that he had once held the Raven King in reverence as Strange did, but had since come to the conclusion that the Raven King had abandoned England long ago. Despite Norrell's offering many concessions, including full disclosure of all previously withheld books of magic, and for the pupilship to evolve into a mutual collaboration of equals, Strange insisted on breaking off their relations.

Two magicians

In June 1815, Strange went again with Lord Wellington to subdue Napoleon's resurgence. Strange continued to refine his abilities and increase his standing within the army, playing an important role in the climactic victory at Waterloo [40]. During the later months of 1815, Norrell's only recorded actions were his efforts to prevent John Segundus from founding a school of magic at Starecross Hall [41], which would later have significant consequences.

In late 1815, Arabella Strange was abducted into Faerie by the gentleman with the thistle down hair [43]. This seems to have inspired Lady Pole's attempted assassination of Mr Norrell in January 1816. The attempt was foiled as Childermass, attuned to the heavy magic surrounding Lady Pole, intervened in time to intercept the bullet intended for Norrell. Childermass survived the wound but, like Strange, began to suspect that Norrell was concealing much about English magic.

1816 saw the public tension between the two magicians continually rise. Strange published a highly anticipated book, The History and Practice of English Magic, outlining the flaws in Norrell's philosophy. Norrell countered by magically destroying all copies of the first printing [50]. By this time, Strange was already in Venice and was powerless to respond, but public opinion turned against Norrell nonetheless.

Near the end of the year Strange was busy attempting to summon a fairy, and in December he succeeded, calling to him none other than the fairy that Norrell had summoned: the gentleman with the thistle-down hair. Strange later infiltrated the fairy's brugh of Lost-hope, and discovered that his wife and Lady Pole were captives there. Before he could free them however the gentleman with the thistle-down hair banished him with a spell [55]. Strange was unable to counter the gentleman's magic to save his wife, and in 1817 he returned to Hurtfew Abbey to seek Norrell's help in summoning the greatest of all magicians, the Raven King, to his aid[66].

During this time, Norrell who was aware of Strange's actions only through rumour, grew restless and fearful of Strange's return. He retired to Hurtfew Abbey to protect his library. After a quarrel between Lascelles and Childermass, Norrell dismissed the latter from his service. (Lascelles himself later became entrapped in a fairy enchantment.) In February 1817 Mr Norrell found himself quite alone as Strange arrived at Hurtfew for the first time [66].

Defeat of the fairy

Despite the longstanding coolness between the two magicians, Strange was cordial with his former tutor and explained he had come to him for help in recovering his lost wife. Together, they decided that only reasonable course of action was to attempt to summon John Uskglass and petition for his assistance [66] In a complicated series of events (summarised in this article), in the course of performing this act Strange and Norrell managed indirectly to cause the defeat of the gentleman with the thistle-down hair. Furthermore, on his death both Arabella Strange and Lady Pole were instantly rescued from Faerie.

As a result of, at least nominally, Strange's actions in Venice, in 1817 the Raven King's magic seems to have returned to England. (For a different perspective, see John Uskglass' spell). Despite their differences Strange and Norrell were henceforth obliged to remain together. To their mutual surprise, the spell which bound Strange in the Darkness similarly entrapped Mr Norrell after he first entered it! and thereafter, if either man attempted to move further from the other than the confines of the Pillar allowed, then by some operation of the curse they were magically brought back into proximity. The inconveniences of this arrangement are striking; nevertheless, the two men appear to have made the best of things and got along tolerably well.

Thus it came about that after the defeat of the fairy gentleman the two magicians, along with their old homes, seem to have disappeared entirely from England. It appears that the enchantment laid by the gentleman upon Strange (and extended to Norrell) was not dispelled upon his death, and as of spring 1817 Strange and Norrell were still seeking the counter-magic together. And yet, at the same time, by some magical means they within their Pillar of Darkness were able to go roving far beyond this earth. In their different ways, both were happy. Perhaps their brief exposure to the might and wonder of the Raven King's magic had worked upon them, giving them a disgust for our narrow workaday world. Mr Strange indeed one might almost have predicted would take to this wandering life, but it was a queer fate for Mr Norrell, the timid recluse, to become an explorer in strange realms[69].


Mr. Norrell was a little afraid of the dark as a child[63].

The presence of a cat caused Mr. Norrell great unease, since if one were in the room with him he would break into a rash directly. Most unluckily, he also suffered from a terror of mice [25].

Mr. Norrell could not approve political reform of any kind. Emancipation of the Catholics or Jews, extension of the franchise to the poor etc. - all of these measures savoured to him of dangerous upheaval [37].


Mr Norrell.jpg

Presumed miniature portrait of Gilbert Norrell (aka Gilebertus Nørrelund), made by Thomas Lawrence in 1814.
By clicking on the artist's name, you'll get to a wealth of information.