The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke

Susanna Clarke
The Ladies of Grace Adieu

I am excited to read this, as I loved Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and missed their world when I finished the book so I am hoping this is more of the same. I'm not such a fan of short stories, though, and this book is short stories. Part of the delight of the Strange & Norrell book was the enormity of it, it was such a huge book that it felt like it was a treasure and something you could let yourself be completely absorbed by, so it's hard to feel the same excitement for short stories. I'm intrigued by the cover though, it looks like bindweed, and I wonder what this is meant to signify.

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I am excited to read this, as I loved Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and missed their world when I finished the book so I am hoping this is more of the same. I’m not such a fan of short stories, though, and this book is short stories. Part of the delight of the Strange & Norrell book was the enormity of it, it was such a huge book that it felt like it was a treasure and something you could let yourself be completely absorbed by, so it’s hard to feel the same excitement for short stories. I’m intrigued by the cover though, it looks like bindweed, and I wonder what this is meant to signify.

The book starts with an introduction from a Professor James Sutherland, and it reads like he has gathered the stories together in order to show how magic developed in Britain and how the land of Faerie lives alongside our world and impacts on it, and to enable the reader to learn more about magic and Faerie’s ‘complexity, its contradictions and its perilous fascinations’.

The first story is The Ladies of Grace Adieu set in the time of Strange & Norrell, so the early 1800s. I remember a lady from the village of Grace Adieu is mentioned in the Strange & Norrell book, as Arabella Strange’s brother, Mr Woodhope, hopes to marry her. I’m intrigued by the picture at the start of the story, as it shows the three ladies with an owl and an insert picture of a man on what looks like the pinnacle of a ruined tower surrounded by birds, presumably ravens to fit in with the Raven King, and I like the way the story begins with a passage from The Book of Lady Catherine of Winchester, my favourite quotes from this passage are that ‘magic belongs as much to the heart as to the head’ and ‘magic is to us as flight is to the birds’ and that magic should be done ‘from love or joy or righteous anger’, the first two quotes making it sound wonderful, the third quote also wonderful but perhaps with a note of caution due to the righteous anger bit!

The three ladies are Mrs Field, who is Mr Field’s second wife and much younger than him, his niece, Cassandra Parbringer, who is of a similar age to the new Mrs Field, and their friend, Miss Tobias, the governess of two orphaned girls at Winter’s Realm House. They all live in the village of Grace Adieu in Gloucestershire. I’m intrigued if there is really such a village, oh sadly it appears not, I guess no surprise really. I’m thinking Miss Tobias is perhaps the person credited with translating Lady Catherine’s passage from Latin. And I’m loving the name of Winter’s Realm House, that sounds like the name of one of the houses of the Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair in Strange & Norrell. 

It is presumed that Cassandra will marry the local rector, Mr Henry Woodhope. Cassandra is not particularly excited by the prospect, seeing Woodhope as just another Mr Field, but she supposes she has to marry someone and the advantage of Woodhope is that he lives in the village so she can stay there with her friends. The ladies talk of ambitions, and Cassandra mentions her wish to visit Yorkshire as she imagines magic to linger there as this was the home of the Raven King, and she also imagines it to be ‘just like the novels of Mrs Radcliffe’. Oooh, I love Radcliffe’s novels, I am excited about the reference to them here. 

The orphaned girls under Miss Tobias’ care at Winter’s Realm House are Ursula and Flora. Flora has a great fear of owls and believes they come around her at night. Their guardian is Captain Winbright, a cousin of their mother, but he rarely visits them at Winter’s Realm House. Their long-dead great-grandfather, Mr Enderwhild, used to study magic in the library at Winter’s Realm House. Cassandra and Mrs Field regularly visit Miss Tobias and they study magical books in the library, though they conceal this as women were not supposed to study magic at that time. They are particularly interested in the Raven King and the Other Landers, both dismissed at that time by Mr Norrell and Mr Strange, the ladies suspect this attitude is because Strange and Norrell’s magic is nowhere near as great as the Raven King’s. Miss Tobias also teaches the children Latin and magic, and the children request stories of the Raven King as bedtime stories. 

Mr and Mrs Strange go to Gloucestershire to visit Woodhope. Captain Winbright and his friend, Fred Littleworth, arrive unannounced at Winter’s Realm House, with their servant, Jack Hogg, and a sad tearful woman who says she is Mrs Winbright, though Winbright says she is Miss Pye. Winbright jokes with Miss Tobias about the children dying from a childhood disease, and how rich they are. Cassandra and Mrs Field are summoned to Winter Realm’s House that evening by Miss Tobias, in order to go there they seem to do some kind of spell on Mr Field to make him fall asleep and dream he has spent the evening as usual with Cassandra and his wife, but they have actually left and gone to Miss Tobias. The ladies discuss the threat to the children from Winbright, with his wish to inherit their money, and his scandalous behaviour towards Miss Pye. Cassandra tells a Raven King story to the children about him being a young baby abandoned in a tower in a dark wood in the snow and being brought water by the ravens and kept warm and suckled by the wolves, then being rescued by fairies Auberon and Titania who then fostered him, with Auberon’s servant Robin Goodfellow guiding the young boy in what might harm him but telling him he is a human child and therefore cleverer than them all and that all England’s earth and air belongs to him. I’m trying to remember if all this history about the Raven King is also in the Strange & Norrell book or if this is new stuff. 

Mrs Field decides to stay with Miss Tobias that night, and Cassandra leaves to go home. As Cassandra is passing through the corridors of Winter’s Realm House, she sees Winbright and Littleworth approaching and hides from them. The men are then surprised to see an owl inside the house. Miss Tobias suddenly appears, and asks the men if they have never heard that owls are the possessions of the Raven King, implying the men should be fearful of the owl. They then see a second owl, who comes and sits on Miss Tobias’ shoulder, then one owl screeches and Miss Tobias says owls screech like this to petrify their prey. The owls then both have something in their beaks which Miss Tobias urges them to swallow. Winbright and Littleworth are no longer in the corridor. Hmmm, so have Cassandra and Mrs Field transformed into owls and then also transformed the men into mice and eaten them. 

Strange is reading late into the night about how the lady magician, Maria Absalom, defeated her enemies by showing them the true reflection of their souls in mirrors, and also a theory that magicians can sometimes find themselves capable of doing great acts which they have never learnt or heard of before when in time of great need. He feels a prickling on the back of his neck which he associates with the sign that magic is happening. He goes for a walk and falls asleep in the orchard of the rectory. He wakes to see the three ladies dancing in the moonlight and tells them they look like Titania’s ladies in the Raven King’s Other Lands. They tell him that the existence of the Raven King and the Other Landers has been dismissed by Strange and Norrell, and say that they could teach him magic but have neither the time or inclination. He tells them his name, and reminds them that completing a successful spell can loosen the magician’s tongue, as wine does, and can make the magician say more than they may have intended. 

The ladies are invited by Woodhope the next day to meet Mr and Mrs Strange. Strange gives no hint of their meeting the night before. Strange and Woodhope go out, leaving the ladies talking together. The Grace Adieu ladies question Arabella on how her husband can say there is no Raven King or Other Land, Arabella explains that these are Norrell’s views and that her husband cannot write exactly as he wishes as he is Norrell’s pupil, and that while England is at war then the two true magicians, Strange and Norrell, must appear united and strong together in order to help defeat France. When Woodhope and Strange come back, Arabella tells her husband that Cassandra and Mrs Field both had coughing fits and shows him mouse bones and skins found in the napkins they coughed into, the skins being turned inside out as owls leave them. Eeek, so is this Winbright and Littleworth. 

Strange later talks to the local farmers and innkeepers. Strange meets the three ladies on the final day of his and his wife’s visit to the village, he tells them he put the bones under his pillow and dreamt he spoke to a handsome man who had grey fur claws instead of hands. He then asks the ladies where the guests at Winter’s Realm House have gone. They answer that Miss Pye was taken back to her family by Miss Tobias’ coachman as her family had been worried about her and had feared they’d never see her again, and that the servant, Jack Hogg, left when it was explained to him that ‘staying would do no good at all’. Strange begs them to tell him what happened to Winbright and Littleworth. Miss Tobias says the night the men had ‘left’ she saw a tall figure at the end of the corridor with wings of birds beating around it, she wondered if it was herself but there was no mirror at the end of the corridor to show her reflection, she said aloud the words of the Yorkshire Game which were spoken when children were sent alone in the dark to summon the Raven King, ‘I greet thee, Lord, and bid thee welcome to my heart’. Cassandra tells Strange he will not be believed if he repeats this tale, she also tells him he is no match for them and mocks him for struggling to reconcile what he believes true in his heart with what he is obliged to write, and tells him that only if and when his head and heart are in agreement can he then tell them what magic they may or may not do. A month after Mr and Mrs Strange return to London, Sir Walter Pole, Strange’s friend, writes to Woodhope offering him a rich living in Northamptonshire, and he leaves Grace Adieu without marrying Cassandra.

Hmmm, it’s all a bit odd really. I’m presuming the three ladies are magicians who are possessed by the Raven King and are able to turn into owls, these being the owls that the child Flora regularly sees. And are the men dead, being turned into mice and eaten, or are they in the Other Lands having been sent there by the ladies. And was the tall figure Miss Tobias or the Raven King. And is the man in the picture at the start of the story, at the top of the tower, the Raven King or Winbright. It’s an interesting tale though I’m puzzled by it, and I’m heartened that the women are successful and dominant over the men, with women usually being dominated over by men at that time, and that they also helped Miss Pye and saved her from being further dominated by Winbright. I’m also interested in Strange’s reaction to the ladies, he isn’t excited that they are magicians or seeks to learn from them, but instead seems fearful of them and fearful of what they could do to Woodhope if Cassandra married him so ensures he removes Woodhope from her. Why would he assume a female magician would hurt her husband when he has no inclination as a magician husband to hurt his wife, why presume Cassandra can’t show the same judgement and restraint as regards her magical skills as he does. Yes, the women hurt Winbright and Littleworth but wasn’t that to prevent them causing more hurt to the children and potentially Miss Tobias and Cassandra too, doesn’t Strange make judgements like that himself when dealing with potentially harmful people. There are lots of references to magical people and stories which I feel are probably relevant and tie in with the Strange & Norrell book, some are familiar but some I fear I may have forgotten, I can sense a re-read of Strange & Norrell being imminent!

The second story is called On Lickerish Hill, the picture shows a fairy that looks quite devil-like, almost like Nesbitt’s sand fairy, Psammead in Five Children And It, there are also three dogs running in the foreground, and a hill in the background with birds flying across the crest of it. The narrator is Miranda Sloper who is married as a young girl to Sir John Sowreston and they live at Pipers Hall. Sir John is prone to lowness of spirits and anger, for which his doctor recommends learned conversations, so scholars, such as Mr Aubrey, regularly stay with them at Pipers Hall, although they don’t manage to lift Sir John’s mood and his low mood then affects them. They get on well with Miranda however. Miranda’s mother tells her that years ago when she was angry at her for eating some pies she had made, she spoke to Sir John, who she knew was in love with Miranda, and promised Miranda to him in marriage and also said that Miranda could spin five skeins of flax in a day, and he replied that he would marry Miranda but during the last month of the first year of marriage she must spin five skeins of flax every day. Miranda is horrified by this claim of her mother’s, knowing she cannot do this task, although her mother tries to assure her that Sir John has probably forgotten about it. Hmmm, I’m confused, this all seems so strange, and I’m not quite sure what flax is or why it’s desirable to spin so much of it. 

Miranda decides to find a fairy to help her and believes some live on Lickerish Hill, though she calls them ‘pharisees’. Fairies seem to be accepted as part of life then, although it is stated they are not as commonly seen as they were years ago. She asks the scholars to help her summon one with the hope that the fairy can help her produce the skeins of flax. The scholars are keen to also ask questions of the fairy, so they draw up a list of questions to have ready, including if they have a religion, if they marry, and about their system of government. 

Sir John locks Miranda in a room with his three dogs to guard her, and tells her to make five skeins of flax every day for that month. She begins to protest that she isn’t able to do this, but he says it is important to not tempt him to sin by making him angry and killing someone. She takes this to mean that he will kill her if she doesn’t make the skeins. Hmmm, are the skeins supposed to represent something else here, with Sir John’s determination to have them. And is Sir John’s low mood and sudden threats of violence supposed to represent something else too.

A fairy is successfully summoned by Miranda, the fairy is described as ‘a small black thing…hairie…legges like jug-handles’. Hmmm, doesn’t sound very attractive! 

The fairy refuses to answer Miranda’s question of if it is a good or bad fairy. He agrees to spin the flax for her, he says though that she will have three guesses every night to guess his name and if she hasn’t guessed his name by the end of the month then she will be his. Miranda is sure she will guess his name, but fails to do so. Sir John enters the room one day, but Miranda hasn’t heard him come in. She also notices that his three dogs that he’s left in the room to guard her also go crazy with delight when the fairy comes. Hmmm, there is something strange here with Miranda saying she hadn’t heard Sir John enter the room and with the dogs going crazy at the fairy, is it supposed to be that Sir John is the fairy? 

Sir John suspects someone else of doing the spinning, and he sacks the servants and questions the scholars. Miranda suggests that Sir John take the scholars and dogs hunting on Lickerish Hill, they are gone for a long time. The scholars later tell Miranda that the dogs ran off eagerly when they got to the hill and led the men to a part of the hill they’d never seen before and which they suspected may have been an underground fairy kingdom, they stopped in a green meadow in the dark woods and there were flowers there which they didn’t recognise, there was an old chalk pit in the middle of the meadow and in this pit was Miranda’s fairy, he was spinning flax and singing a tune which included the words ‘My name’s Tom Tit Tot’. Miranda then anticipates telling the fairy its correct name and it being defeated and then Sir John releasing her as she’s produced the required spun flax and that she and Sir John will then be happy and get back their servants. However she doesn’t relate this as it actually happens, and the story ends with Miranda telling the scholars she will write her history, which presumably is then this story.

This story didn’t really grab me, there are some humorous bits but I found it a bit annoying to read as it is written with spelling errors, I wondered if this was done phonetically, or to imply the narrator was unable to spell, or to show it was written long ago when words were written differently, or a combination of all three. But I found it interfered with my reading of the story, as my eyes didn’t flow over the page as easily as I kept stopping short at the incorrect words. There were also words with unexpected leading capital letters, such as ‘Catastrophes’ and ‘Gracious’, which again looks a little strange on the page, and which reminds me of the Mary Poppins book I have recently read which also had leading capital letters for objects and which seemed to be used inconsistently or at least not with a pattern that I could fathom, so is this something to do with magic or magical objects, this use of leading capital letters. And the ending seemed odd, for us not to see the fairy come and be defeated and Sir John release Miranda, it makes me wonder if it did happen as she hoped it would. 

The next chapter is entitled Mrs Mabb. I am very intrigued with the drawing at the start of this story and what it could signify, as it is a jug similar, I presume, to an old-fashioned Toby Jug with a mean-looking face on it and with butterflies flying around the jug and landing on it. The story, set in the 1800s, is about Venetia Moore’s admirer, Captain Fox, being stolen from her by the magical influence of Mrs Mabb. 

Venetia Moore returns home after caring for a sick friend. She lives with her sister, Fanny, and Fanny’s husband. She learns that while she’s been away her admirer, Captain Fox, has been paying his respects to a neighbour, Mrs Mabb. She is told by Fox’s servant, Lucas, that Fox has cast off all his old friends, Lucas now works in a pub and Fox’s prized horse has been given away. Lucas says that Mrs Mabb invited Fox to join her card party and he hasn’t been seen since. Lucas himself has never seen Mrs Mabb. Fanny also has never seen Mrs Mabb, though she believes she is very rich. Fanny then gets confused about how long Mrs Mabb has been in the neighbourhood, saying at first that she has only recently arrived, and then correcting herself by saying she has been there over 15 years. Fanny directs Venetia to where Mrs Mabb lives, which she says is on the outskirts of the village between a circle of ancient stones and an ancient wood. Venetia goes there and looks at the house from a distance, it is a very tall house, almost like a tower, and is surrounded by a high wall with no opening or path leading up to it. With the forest behind it, Venetia struggles to judge the size of the house, almost thinking it is very small, rather than it being far away which makes it look small. She walks away and then hears lots of horses’ hooves behind her, like an army approaching. She can remember nothing of what happened before or after this, but is found by a neighbour wandering in the lane with her face and hands scratched and bruised, her clothes torn and dirty and with no shoes, and talking about silver harness bells and green banners and not even knowing her own name. She is later certain that she had watched a procession of soldiers, but her sister assures her there were no soldiers in the village that day.

Venetia collapses in terror the following day whilst out walking, as she thinks she sees a procession of soldiers with green banners coming towards her and which she later realises were just birch trees. She also learns that Mr Grout, an attorney in the neighbourhood who has recently acquired great wealth and better health and is now younger-looking as well as his eyes and skin having ‘a queer sparkle to them not entirely pleasant to behold’, had made his fortune by being employed by Mrs Mabb as her man of business. She speaks to him and he describes Mrs Mabb’s looks as perfection, and says in her youth she successfully managed her estates and those of her numerous relatives but that she now lives a retired life and works industriously at embroidery, and that her numerous female cousins and aunts live with her and also embroider. He tells Venetia where Mrs Mabb’s house is, and describes this as in a totally different direction to where Fanny described it. Venetia goes to look at the house and this time passes through a gap in the broken wall surrounding it, there are very tall magnificent trees in the grounds around it, these all clipped into smooth round shapes, and the house is an old grey tower with battlements and slits for windows, but there is a huge rose bush behind the tower which makes Venetia unsure if the house is actually very small. She hears a pipe and drum and then starts dancing, though she has no control over this dancing. She is later told by Fanny that she didn’t come home that day, and a search party organised that night found her going round and round a big yew tree and that they were unable to get her to stop turning until they physically restrained her, and that her shoes were destroyed and her feet bleeding. Fanny is beginning to fear Venetia has gone mad, though she vows she will not let her be taken to a madhouse. Awww, I do like Fanny, she is annoying but is very caring with her vow of not letting Venetia be sent to a madhouse.

The following day, Mr Grout angrily tells Venetia he has been sent by Mrs Mabb to complain of Venetia tormenting her by going round and round her house and frightening her relations. Venetia tells him that if Mrs Mabb gives Fox to her, then she will leave Mrs Mabb alone. She adds that if Fox indeed no longer loves her, then he would have written or told her this, so she believes he still loves her, and that this is all a trick of Mrs Mabb’s. 

For the next few days, Fanny does not leave Venetia on her own and she hides Venetia’s shoes so she cannot go out to Mrs Mabb’s house. Venetia waits till Fanny goes out on an errand, she then wraps her feet in rags and leaves the house. She gets near to the lane to Mrs Mabb’s house and passes children playing with a whistle and drum, they begin to play a tune and Venetia has an overwhelming feeling of terror that she will be made to dance forever and ever, but the children help her recover from this. She asks the children if they know where Mrs Mabb’s house is, and they tell her it is behind some cabbage leaves at the bottom of Billy Little’s garden, that Mrs Mabb is the size of a pepper-pot and drinks her coffee out of an acorn-cup and her servants are a thrush and a blackbird, and that Venetia had better not go to Mrs Mabb’s house as she could turn her into butter which might melt or a pudding which might get eaten or a drawing of herself on white paper which someone might accidentally set fire to. Hmmm, the punishments that the children tell Venetia that Mrs Mabb will do to her, all sound like very witch-like things to do. 

The children take Venetia to Billy Little’s garden. Venetia sees Mrs Mabb standing on Billy’s window-sill and speaks firmly to her, but the children pull her away saying it is only an old Toby jug. Oh, so this is the Toby jug from the picture at the front of the story. 

Behind the cabbage leaves, Venetia sees stones and slates piled together on the top of a steep bank, these are in the form of a bee-hive with tall flowers growing behind it, which makes Venetia think it could actually be a large tower on the edge of a wood. She sees a moth in the air. She stretches her hand out to break apart Mrs Mabb’s home, and lots of pale green butterflies fly out of a gap in the stones, they fly round and round Venetia and she thinks the sunlight glitters on them making them look like soldiers dancing with swords, she grabs them out of the air and crushes them and stamps on them, though more and more continue flying around her maddening her, and she faints. Fanny tells her later, when she has been taken home, that they were just pale green butterflies. Venetia tells Fanny that she knows Mrs Mabb is keeping Fox in her house, and that she sent the butterflies to prevent Venetia rescuing him. Venetia still has some broken butterfly wings in her hand, so she puts these in an envelope addressed to Mrs Mabb and asks Fanny’s husband to deliver this to Mr Grout. Fanny’s husband also retrieves Venetia’s shoes from where Fanny had hidden them, and gives her a drawing of the village and the woods surrounding it with Mrs Mabb’s house marked on it, deep in the woods. Venetia goes through the woods to Mrs Mabb’s house, and as she approaches the house she sees a cloud of insects from which Fox appears. He says he thought they parted only yesterday as she was going to see her sick friend, and he had given her his watch-chain to wear as a keepsake. She tells him this was four months ago, and he is very confused at this. He says Mrs Mabb had invited him to cards, but when he arrived there was no card game and Mrs Mabb just wanted to talk about love to him, he says there was no furniture in her house apart from the chair she sat on, and that when he went through a door in her house to what he thought was the kitchen or library, he found himself in the middle of a wood or on the edge of an ocean. He also says that someone kept coming to the house who Mrs Mabb did not want to see and that she told her family and servants to get rid of that person, but that the third time this person came they actually killed two people from the house whose bodies were sent back to Mrs Mabb, and that Mrs Mabb then said it was not worth losing any more people and asked Fox if he would like to go home. Venetia leads him back to the village, and she is met partway by Fanny and her husband who are out looking for her. 

I did enjoy this story with its Austen-like feel and I was intrigued by it, but puzzled too. I guess there aren’t expected to be logical answers as this is a magical tale, but I did wonder if Fanny and her husband actually saw Fox with Venetia at the end, or was he not actually real. Had Mrs Mabb bewitched the residents of the village so they were confused about how long she had been there and where she lived. Was Venetia assaulted, as the neighbour who found her seemed to believe, given the torn state of her dress. Is it that Mrs Mabb’s houses are actually butterfly homes within trees, and when Venetia was found turning round and round the yew tree then this was actually Mrs Mabb’s house. Is ‘Mabb’ another name for a butterfly perhaps (I must google this). How did the children know so much about Mrs Mabb’s habits and house and likely punishments, are children more susceptible to witches and believe in them, or is it all just a story they have made up. Why did Fanny’s husband help Venetia by retrieving her shoes, and did he do the drawing of where to find Mrs Mabb’s house or was it something given to him by Mr Grout, had he also been charmed by Mrs Mabb but resisted her and wanted Venetia to defeat her knowing how dangerous Mrs Mabb was, or did he want rid of Venetia as he feared she was her mad. There are some amusing lines, quite Austen-like in their gentle accurate irony, particularly about Venetia’s sister, Fanny, who ‘with great steadiness of purpose’ informed her husband of her thoughts ‘several times a day’, and that their domestic arrangement was ‘that Fanny supplied the talk and he the silence’, and that Fanny ‘found herself obliged to speak of it almost incessantly, while at the same time continually advising Venetia to think of Captain Fox no more’. Indeed the whole story reminds me of an Austen one, with Venetia crossed in love, and her sister being a curate’s wife, and the village life with the different social classes and the well-to-do taking provisions to the poor, and the women having marriage as the only option for them, and their fascination with soldiers, and the time it is set in. And eeek, I’ve just been reading Wikipedia’s review of The Ladies of Grace Adieu, and this mentions that Mrs Mabb is from the fairy Queen Mab mentioned in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet and Mercutio’s description of Queen Mab mentions drums and soldiers and insects, and Queen Mabb turns up in lots of other literature, including Austen’s Sense & Sensibility in being the name of the horse that Willoughby gives to Marianne! Well, this all makes a bit more sense now.

The next story is The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse. This reminds me of Strange & Norrell, as that story featured the Duke. The introduction says it is set in the world created by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess in Stardust, and the village of Wall is from their story. I may have to take a look at the Stardust book. 

In 1819, in the village of Wall, there is a wall which separates our world from the world of Faerie. The Duke of Wellington stays at the inn in the village of Wall, called The Seventh Magpie. The Duke is offended by the managers of the inn, Mr and Mrs Pumphrey, so hides Mrs Pumphrey’s embroidery scissors. Mr Pumphrey therefore removes the Duke’s horse from their stables and puts it in the nearby field, which is near the wall to Faerie. The Duke watches his horse go between the trees on the far side of the field and then disappear through the opening in the wall, so he then follows his horse. 

On the other side of the wall, he finds ancient woods of oak and ash with ivy and honeysuckle and dog-roses, and he follows a white path through the hills to a stone house surrounded by a moat with a bridge over it completely covered in moss. The Duke knocks on the door of the house to ask if they have seen his horse. There is no answer so he looks through the windows, and the house is quite bare apart from a pewter goblet in one room, but in the final room there is a birdcage containing a bird and a woman sat on a stool sewing a huge piece of embroidery which is so large it is spread out over the floor around her. He asks if she has seen his horse and she says no, he then asks if he can come in and sit with her for a couple of hours, which she agrees to so long as he doesn’t disturb her sewing. She tells him she is doing the embroidery for him, he looks at it and sees it is made up of thousands and thousands of pictures, including a picture of his horse in the field, a picture of himself walking along the white path towards this house, and a picture of him sitting in this room with the woman and the birdcage. A rat comes across the floor and nibbles at the picture of the room, and when it nibbles away the bit showing the birdcage, the cage in the actual room disappears and the bird flies away. The Duke thinks the woman hasn’t had time to embroider these pictures since he arrived, so it must be that whatever she embroiders then happens.

He looks at the next pictures she has sewn, these show a knight in armour approaching the house and he and the Duke arguing and the knight killing the Duke with a sword. The woman then leaves the room. From the window of the house, the Duke can see the knight approaching over the hillside, he quickly searches the house for a weapon but can find none, he then remembers Mrs Pumphrey’s scissors in his pocket so snips away the last few pictures of the embroidery which shows the knight arriving and them arguing and his own death. He then looks out of the window and the knight is no longer there. He then embroiders three pictures of his own, these show him leaving the house and finding his horse and then going through the opening in the wall back to the village. These things then happen. 

He remembers this incident later in life, when he’s a politician and feeling like he’s not in control of his own destiny, mostly because he has other people to please and compromises to make, and he wonders if this could be because it may be how the pictures have been sewn.

This is only a short little story and a very appealing and enticing one, with the possibility that our destinies can be decided and altered by adding or removing pictures in an embroidery. I looked back at the introduction by Professor James Sutherland for some guidance on the story, but he just says the story shows how unprepared men such as the Duke were when they accidentally stumbled into Faerie and how they didn’t understand the rules, and how women such as Venetia in the previous story understood the rules better, but I’d say the Duke guessed the rules quite swiftly and took action accordingly. I’m surprised the Duke didn’t see the value of this piece of embroidery to determine future events and how he could have used this to assure himself of success in his military and political life, or indeed to reverse mistakes he has made, I’m surprised he didn’t attempt to go back again through the opening in the wall and to the house to get the embroidery, or perhaps the embroidery only works when in Faerie, but it seems an incredibly useful tool to have, I can think of several times in my life I’d like to use it! I also love the name of the inn, The Seventh Magpie, it makes me wonder about the rhyme about counting magpies and what seven stands for, I’ve just googled and it’s ‘seven for a secret never to be told’ which seems fitting for this story. And I love the whole idea of the wall dividing Faerie and our world.

The next story is Mr Simonelli or the Fairy Widower, and is about a new clergyman in the village of Allhope in Derbyshire in 1811 meeting with, and then having to challenge and defeat, a fairy called John Hollyshoes. The story is written in the form of Simonelli’s journal, which I like as it reminds me of Wilkie Collins’ novels which often use journals to tell the story.

Simonelli sees John Hollyshoes and his servant, Dando, arguing with an old man, insisting the man gets his wife, who is a local midwife, to give help to Hollyshoes’ wife in childbirth, but the old man’s wife is dead. Simonelli sees Hollyshoes make a strange sign above the old man’s head. Simonelli offers his services to help Hollyshoes’ wife and is taken to Allhope House, which stands alone quite some way from Allhope village and has no path or road to it, but Simonelli cannot save the wife, though he saves the child. The wife tells him before she dies that she was taken by force and kept there by a jailor and she begs for her mother to take her home, Simonelli thinks this is just her rambling as she is weak and in pain. Simonelli is shocked at how dirty Hollyshoes and Dando are and how dirty and neglected Allhope House is, but how the house also contains many jewels and grand clothes though these are strewn about and often on the floor, and how the servants keep to the shadows but look odd, and that Hollyshoes also talks about things from another historical time. Simonelli protests to Hollyshoes at a very dirty rag being used to wrap the newborn baby in, Hollyshoes seems surprised at this and asks Simonelli if he doesn’t see a fine white linen cloth and questions how Simonelli sees other things in the room including Hollyshoes’ and Dando’s clothes, and is surprised again that Simonelli states these are all dirty and torn. Hollyshoes then states that Simonelli must be related to him, and Simonelli agrees how alike their features are when they stand side by side looking in the mirror, such as their eyebrows having an upward flourish, and their eyelids having a slant which makes them look arrogant. Hollyshoes questions Simonelli about his parents, and identifies that Simonelli’s father was Hollyshoes’ cousin and produces a letter that proves this. Hollyshoes says there is an inheritance to be claimed, that many duels have been fought between the relatives and many have been killed in violent ways by fellow claimants, but as the son, Simonelli would be the rightful claimant. Hollyshoes talks about extensive land in England and ‘elsewhere’, including Rattle-Heart House. Ooooh, another house name that is fitting for the Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair from Strange & Norrell.

Simonelli meets the Gathercoles in Allhope village, as it was Mrs Gathercole who hired Simonelli as the local curate, she and her five daughters all say they have never heard of Allhope House or Hollyshoes. 

The next day, the old man who Hollyshoes was angry at, is found dead. Simonelli also learns that a new mother, Dido Puddifer, has gone missing, she was nursing her baby at the time and her baby was left on the grass. Hollyshoes later tells Simonelli that they now have a wet-nurse to feed the baby. Dido’s mother tells Simonelli that Hollyshoes has taken her, that he is a very powerful fairy who has lived there for an extremely long time, ‘since the world began, for all I know’ and who states he has rights and claims over the people. However, the Gathercoles say he does not exist and it is the country folk’s superstition. Dido’s mother says Hollyshoes lives at End-of-All-Hope House, and she believes he has a fairy baby there who needs feeding so has taken Dido for this. Simonelli is very shocked at this, he struggles to believe it and yet feels he does believe it. He immediately goes to Hollyshoes’ house and demands that Dando take him to the baby, his cousin, and finds Dido chained to a chair in a filthy room nursing the child with dry crusts of bread beside her to eat, and with a cut on her head. However, Dido sees the room as full of beautiful things and that she is sat on a golden chair in a gorgeous gown and fed delicious food. Simonelli wipes the cut on her head with his finger. 

Hollyshoes asks Simonelli about the Gathercole daughters, saying he intends to take another wife having been a widow for seven weeks. Simonelli is distraught thinking of one of the girls being forced to live forever at End-of-All-Hope House, and so proposes to each of the girls, telling them it is a secret engagement, this is to ensure that Hollyshoes cannot take any of them. He sees a spinning storm of leaves and snowflakes, and then Hollyshoes arrives at the Gathercole house. Simonelli then rushes to End-of-All-Hope House to free Dido. She says that if she looks through the eye that Simonelli touched with his finger to wipe the cut, she sees the dirty room and herself in chains and that the baby is an ugly goblin, but if she looks through the eye that Simonelli didn’t touch then she sees it all as beautiful. He tells Dando that Hollyshoes has sent him to fetch Dido in order for her to tell his new nervous bride how delightful it is to live there, and he orders that Dando unchain Dido. They then see the other servants, and they are goblins with horned and antlered heads, with tusks and bats’ ears and cats’ ears and rats’ whiskers. When he and Dido run through the wood to escape, the wood never comes to an end and they often see a white gate with a lane, but Simonelli is suspicious of this lane as a hot wind blows along it and it smells of burning flesh and sulphur. Eventually Simonelli realises they will never escape and must wait for Hollyshoes to come to them. Hollyshoes arrives and says he will kill Simonelli for what he has done to thwart him. Ivy then wraps around Simonelli and seems about to strangle him. Simonelli makes the sign above Hollyshoes’ head which he saw Hollyshoes make above the old man’s head, and Hollyshoes is split in two and dead, there is a horrible rending sound like the world being torn in two. Hollyshoes being dead then frees the ivy from Simonelli, and he and Dido ride back to Allhope village and he returns her home. Simonelli afterwards planned to examine Hollyshoes’ body to learn more about the differences between humans and fairies, and if fairies have an organ of magic, as he had already seen several differences in anatomy just from looking briefly at Hollyshoes’ corpse. But the corpse is gone when he returns. Simonelli still plans to pursue his claim of his father’s inheritance and to possess the property in Faerie. But he has first to face angry Mrs Gathercole now she has learnt that he convinced all of her daughters to enter into secret engagements with him.

I enjoyed this story, it was interesting having a person who is a mix of human and fairy, and him judging a fairy, and it was fascinating to ‘learn’ more about fairies. It was disturbing with the young wife of Hollyshoes saying she had been taken by force and kept there and presumably then made pregnant and forced to carry Hollyshoes’ son. And I am guessing because the enchantment at Hollyshoes’ house didn’t affect Simonelli and he could see all the dirty and neglected things, rather the fine and beautiful things which Hollyshoes expected him to see and that others see with the enchantment, this then made Hollyshoes think Simonelli was related to him. So Simonelli being related to Hollyshoes means that Simonelli is part human and part fairy, but I guess not evil like Hollyshoes as he’s not a full fairy. Some of the characteristics of a fairy that they shared were interesting though, even though these were muted in Simonelli, such as feeling superior to others and mocking people and being arrogant, and displaying fury and scorn and cunning, as well as the physical characteristics of their eyebrows having an upward flourish, and their eyelids having a slant, though in Simonelli these emotions were shown on his face even though he felt the opposite inside. Male fairies also seem to be attracted to blue-eyed and golden-haired ladies, and to seduce them with their charm. Simonelli falling for both Marianne who has copper-coloured hair, and Isabella who is the prettiest, seems to show again that he is a mix of human and fairy. Fairies apparently also dislike the rowan tree and its red berries, and it seems this can be used to overpower them. They are also extremely strong and difficult to kill. I love the desolate and haunting names of fairy houses, such as Rattle-Heart House and End-of-All-Hope House.

The next story is Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge was Built at Thoresby. The story is prefaced by Professor James Sutherland, who wrote the introduction to the book and I presume is supposed to have gathered the tales (rather than Susanna Clarke), and he says the story provides ‘a great many facts about this enigmatic race’. 

The story is set in 1780, Tom Brightwind is a fairy prince of at least 7000 years of age, and is good friends with David Montefiore who is an Italian Jewish doctor who tries to teach Tom to be kinder and more considerate to the people he meets and to his many grand-daughters. Tom lives at Castel des Tours Saunz Nowmbrem, which means Castle of Innumerable Towers, there are 14 towers to his castle, including one in Shoe-Lane in London, another in an island on a Scottish loch, another in the Algerian desert, and another in Faerie Minor. Tee hee, I’m loving all this detail, and Tom himself and his grand-daughters.

David has been summoned to a patient in Lincoln, and Tom suggests accompanying him. They travel the distance on horseback in a few hours rather than a few days, due to fairy magic. They take a wrong turning however and arrive in the desolate village of Thoresby, where they are told they have to pay a toll for passing over the river by a simple ferry boat, when they refuse to pay they are told instead they must spend time with the local landowner, Mr Winstanley, in order to entertain him with their conversation. Winstanley is a self-indulgent and lazy and foolish man, obsessed with his belief that Thoresby could be thriving and successful if it only had a bridge over the river. Hmmm, Mr Winstanley reminds me a little of Dickens’ Horace Skimpole. 

Winstanley’s patient wife, who puts up with his self-indulgence, asks David privately for advice on why they haven’t conceived a child, saying she is desperate to have a child to love. David shares this information with Tom, who then offers to build the bridge across the river saying this can be done in one night. While everyone is watching the building of the bridge, he sleeps with Mrs Winstanley and makes her pregnant. Hmmm, was this kindness on Tom’s behalf to provide her with a child, as fairies don’t seem to be kind, or was it just that he was attracted to her or keen to create a child.

The bridge is duly built, although the architect from Cambridge and the engineer and stonemason and labourers have all been magically summoned there and are still in their nightclothes. But the design for the bridge comes from Piranesi’s sketches. Eeek, this is an interesting link with Clarke’s later book Piranesi. And I’ve had a look on Wikipedia at Piranesi’s sketches, they are amazingly intricate and fascinating and beautiful with staircases and arches and bridges, although dark and morbid with their prison theme.

The bridge at Thoresby is consequently very huge and dramatic and Italianate, and the village’s name is then changed to Thoresby Bridge, as the bridge dominates it so much. Part of the bridge’s parapet later mysteriously moves when Mr Winstanley is on it and he falls into the river and is drowned. Mrs Winstanley gives birth to a son called Lucius, who is extraordinarily handsome and charming but of peculiar temper and quite tyrannical and capricious and rules over the village residents like a king and they are completely in awe of him, and Lucius forbids the birds to sing, the dogs to bark, the horses to bray, the wind to rustle the leaves, the river to flow noisily, and the whole village to be silent when he is hungover, and he never seems to age. Omg, I’ve just googled Thoresby Bridge and there is actually such a place in Lincolnshire with a bridge called Pierrepont Bridge designed by an architect from Cambridge! 

I really liked this story. There is lots of information given about fairies, namely that they are either handsome or twisted and repulsive, their faces often expressing scorn, they live for thousands of years, and many fairies claim descent from Julias Caesar and are fascinated by him. And the story reminds me nicely of Strange & Norrell, as it has footnotes with information about fairy history and with the books listed where this information comes from, such as the wonderful sounding Ancient Legends & Mystic Charms & Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde, and The Kingdoms of Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner. 

The next story is Antickes and Frets. In 1568, Mary Queen of Scots comes to England seeking protection from Queen Eizabeth, but Queen Elizabeth feels that Mary is too much of a threat so banishes her to the care of the Earl of Shrewsbury and his wife, Bess Hardwick, at their property Tutbury Castle and later at their property at Chatsworth, and Mary is not allowed to leave. Mary is very angry and bitter at this, and hates Queen Elizabeth and aims to plot against her. She gets gossip from her maid about Bess Hardwick and how her previous three husbands had died, so she begins to believe that Bess had brought about at least one of these deaths by incorporating magic into embroidered items she gave to that husband, and Mary hopes to do the same by embroidering items for Queen Elizabeth. Mary and Bess sit embroidering together for hours, Mary making many items for Queen Elizabeth which feature fierce creatures, and dropping hints to Bess for her to incorporate magic into them, but Queen Elizabeth is never harmed by them. Mary tries to force Bess to act by flirting with her husband, but Mary then has a nightmare that Bess has sewn her to the bed with her eyes and throat and fingers stitched together. She views this as Bess’ retaliation and then begins to fear her more and more, seeing threats in everything connected with Bess. Mary is eventually beheaded, after being found to be plotting the assassination of Queen Elizabeth. 

I was a bit confused by this story, who is the fairy or able to employ magic, Mary Queen of Scots or Bess Hardwick, or is it just Mary’s belief and hope that Bess can employ magic when she actually can’t, did Bess have any magical skills or was it all just in Mary’s head. I did read up about Mary and Bess, however, and their beautifully detailed embroideries are famous and are on display in museums, they are called the Oxburgh Hangings, it was fascinating to read about them and they are amazingly detailed, and some of the symbols used by Mary are thought to be messages or signs about Queen Elizabeth, either how Mary felt herself to be cruelly treated or as a signal to others of actions they should take. So although I was a bit confused by this story, I actually really enjoyed it as it prompted me to learn more about these embroideries.

The final story is John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner. I like that the story harks back to Strange & Norrell, with it being written by Lord Portishead. It tells the story of a poor charcoal burner who lives alone in a hut built of sticks and pieces of turf in a wood in Cumbria, his only companion being a pig called Blakeman. A hunting group coming through the wood destroys his hut and his pile of charcoal. Blakeman runs between one huntsman’s horse’s legs, effectively trapping him there in the clearing. This hunter is John Uskglass, the Raven King. The charcoal burner shouts abuse at the huntsman for destroying his hut, but doesn’t know who he is. The huntsman turns Blakeman into a salmon, who then leaps into the nearby stream and swims away. 

The charcoal burner goes to Furness Abbey to appeal for help from the monks and is given food. He is also told to pray to Saint Kentigern, who is an expert on salmon, for help regarding Blakeman. The saint pulls a salmon out of the font of the church and this salmon then turns into Blakeman, and the saint also agrees to punish the huntsman by taking away a day’s sport from him. Uskglass is hunting at that moment and immediately falls off his horse and into a cleft in some rocks and can’t climb out by himself or by the aid of his magic and has to stay there all day and all night, until at dawn the magic holding him in place is withdrawn and he climbs out. When he reaches his castle, he uses his silver dish of water to speak to the West Wind and the Stars to ask who employed this magic against him, and is shown the charcoal burner. He travels to the clearing to speak to the charcoal burner who is not there, so Uskglass eats the cheese that the monks gave to the charcoal burner. The charcoal burner then returns and realises that Uskglass has stolen his food, and so abuses him again.

He again complains to the monks at Furness Abbey about the huntsman, who tell him to pray to Saint Bridget who looks after cheeses and butter and dairymen and milkmaids. The saint agrees to punish the huntsman, and gets a cow to tell him off in Latin, his horse also tells him off, and his dogs, and the flowers and the stones. Uskglass has to pretend he did this magic himself, rather than admit to his friends and servants around him that someone has more magical abilities than him. He sends a huge flock of a thousand-plus ravens to the charcoal burner’s clearing, they damage the trees in the clearing and knock the charcoal burner and Blakeman to the ground and search their memories and dreams for evidence of magic, from birth to death, but cannot find any sign of magic in either of them. 

The charcoal burner again complains to the monks at Furness Abbey, and is directed to Saint Oswald who has knowledge of ravens. The saint realises that the huntsman is Uskglass the Raven King, and agrees to punish Uskglass’ rudeness in not answering the charcoal burner, by making Uskglass talk rapidly for three days and nights. Uskglass gives away secrets in his speech, and has to be locked in a room at the top of the castle so no-one can hear more of the secrets he speaks. Uskglass then goes to the charcoal burner and asks what he wants, the charcoal burner demands an apology for turning Blakeman into a salmon and for his hut and charcoal pile and damaged trees to be repaired and he also asks for a second pig. Uskglass does all this but asks the charcoal burner to promise he will never say who did all this for him, it then becomes obvious to Uskglass that the charcoal burner has no idea who he is, so he swiftly leaves and then never returns to Cumbria, even though it has excellent hunting, for 50-60 years until he is sure that the charcoal burner has died. 

This seems another odd little story, I guess it demonstrates that pride comes before a fall, that an all-powerful king can be punished for his selfishness and uncaring attitude to a lowly person. The saints are quite interesting, Saint Oswald from Grasmere (which I know is a real place), Saint Bridget from Beckermet, and Saint Kentigern from Grizedale. Oooh, I’ve just googled and both Beckermet and Grizedale are both real places, as is Furness Abbey. I’ve also looked up the saints on Wikipedia, and Saint Kentigern (also known as St Mungo) is pictured with a fish, and Saint Bridget is the patroness of livestock and dairy workers, and a raven is mentioned in connection with Saint Oswald. I do love it when her tales involve real places and links to real facts like this, although I’m still disappointed that the village of Grace Adieu does not exist.

I did enjoy this book, although some of the stories were a little odd or puzzling. I liked that it was written as a kind of factual guide, making it seem like magic and Faerie is acknowledged to be all around us, rather than as a fantasy kind of tale, I guess like Strange & Norrell was too. I love the drawings in the book as well, I am wondering if the bindweed on the front cover is meant to demonstrate that magic and Faerie insidiously wind their way around our lives, sometimes as a nuisance like bindweed but also attractive like bindweed, and that they are very difficult to keep down and get rid of, again like bindweed. I found I often had to read the stories twice in order to fully appreciate the subtlety of them and all the information about fairies. I also love the names of the fairies, such as Tom Brightwind and John Hollyshoes, as they often incorporate nature in their names, such as a flower or the weather, the exception being Mrs Mabb which doesn’t sound like a nature-type of name at all. And the names of Brightwind’s grand-daughters are even more fascinating and include Honey-of-the-Wild-Bees, Lament-From-Across-the-Water, Kiss-Upon-a-True-Love’s-Grave and Bird-in-the-Hand. And I was intrigued with how often embroidery is mentioned and if witches/fairies were known for embroidery and if there is some magical connection with this type of needlework, or perhaps it was just popular at this time. It’s a clever book, and unusual and interesting and fun.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke available on Amazon
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