Short Story Month: "The Ladies of Grace Adieu"

05/23/2010 11:10 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In honor of the last week of Short Story Month, a series of short story posts. First up is "The Ladies of Grace Adieu" by Susanna Clarke.

Susanna Clarke is best known for her bestselling novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, an unusual hybrid of Victoriana and fantasy. So developed is the world of Jonathan Strange -- a nineteenth century England populated with faerie and magicians -- that Clarke frequently diverges from the beaten path in a series of exquisitely detailed footnotes, of which some could almost be considered standalone stories.

So it seems appropriate that when Clarke returns, it should be with a short story collection, since her novel was already so rife with the tantalizing fragments of short stories. But while it is set in the same universe as that of Jonathan Strange, "The Ladies of Grace Adieu" unquestionably stands on its own as a series of glittering dark tales that draw upon the legends and mythology of northern Europe.

Each story explores the supernatural from a different angle, and in a different tone, as if each represents an echo of a different storytelling tradition. There is for example the epistolary story, Mr Simonelli and the Fairy Widower, told in the restrained diction of an educated English gentleman--until the austerely Victorian setting and its accompanying comedy of manners is gradually undermined by the encroachment of faerie wildness; and the narrator himself, who had seemed to conform to a type, is revealed to be somewhat other than what he seems.

Then there are the stories that echo traditional fairy tales, such as Mrs Mabb, a story about a girl who, having learned that her fiancée has vanished into the home of a mysterious woman, begins to go mad...Or does she? The protagonist's desperate search for her lover, the attack deep in the woods that leaves her gown and shoes in tatters, the house that resembles a mushroom and keeps receding into the distance when approached -- all these elements are reminiscent of a fairy tale, yet are imbued with eerily realistic imagery. The girl's refusal to give up her quest calls up another echo, as well: that of the popular ballad of Tam Lin.

On Lickerish Hill is another story that invokes the rhythm of fairy tales, and specifically Rumpelstiltskin, but with a twist: even if the damsel in distress is saved, there can be no happy ending, because her husband is mentally unstable and abusive. Here Clarke experiments with language, going back in time to the seventeenth century and its incarnation of English for the tale. Only an academic who has studied the language of the period can know if the author succeeds in maintaining an authentic voice throughout.

John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner contains both elements of fairy tales and of much older, Celtic mythology. The tension between Christianity and the faerie kingdom that is evoked in this story hearkens back to an earlier time, when monks struggled with the conflicting yet similar attractions of magic and religion. The Raven King who rules the faeries is here undermined by the budding power of Christianity, much in the way that religion in fact did gradually overthrow pagan gods in the early Middle Ages. In such times when Christianity holds sway, a simple charcoal burner can wreak havoc for the omnipotent Raven King. Therefore this story, which also concludes the collection, might have been chosen for the end as a way of signifying that more than just the book is coming to an end.

With her Victorian settings and a writing style that is almost perpetually serene, Clarke is often compared by critics to Jane Austen. In my opinion, Clarke's resemblance to Austen is purely superficial: thematically and even stylistically I think she is much closer to another Victorian writer, Christina Rossetti, whose poem Goblin Market captures both the mores of Victorian England and its underlying powerful sensuality. In Goblin Market, faerie represents both a menacing force and a source of discovery of sexuality and inner strength; and the same is true in the title story, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, in which proper, well-bred Victorian women turn magic to sinister ends one night...and in the process, discover a side of themselves that savors the power that they must relinquish by day. In Clarke's universe, faerie is a place both luminous and dark, a garden of delights and of tortures simultaneously.

This review was originally printed at The Short Review.