The Ladies of Grace Adieu is a really fantastic short story collection. Each of the stories is very different in form and style, and yet they all cover the fairy world to some extent and are unified by a common theme of humans getting the better of the sidhe. It nicely expands the world of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and is both an excellent addition and a welcome introduction to it. I enjoyed my return to this world – and maybe I need to re-read the novel now?
Professor Sutherland gives readers a quick contextualization of the sidhe stories in the collection, and how he selected them.
I rather liked the introduction that immediately brought me back to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, despite having read the novel a good while ago. And I liked how it frames each of the stories and their differing styles.
The Ladies of Grace Adieu
Cassandra Parbringer, Miss Tobias, and Mrs. Fields are friends, united by an interest in magic. Although women aren’t allowed to practice magic, and indeed, some people believe they can’t, their interest isn’t purely theoretical. When one of their projects coincides with a visit of Jonathan Strange in their village Grace Adieu to visit his brother-in-law, things get a little more complicated.
This story is the one most directly connected to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in that the former actually appears in it, and the story itself is referenced in the novel. It was a great start to the collection, one that shows the ways women resist patriarchal rules and call them into question. It’s also simply a good story with excellent writing.
On Lickerish Hill
Miranda gets married off when her mother promises that she can spin an unbelievable amount of flax in a night. Her husband puts her to the test, and Miranda has to seek help. But help doesn’t come without its price.
On Lickerish Hill is a twist on Rumpelstiltskin, and I do love myself a good fairy tale retelling. Here it becomes a story of a woman triumphing over the men in her life, which makes me appreciate it doubly. Although the archaic spelling took some getting used to, it is an excellent read.
Venetia Moore was supposed to marry Captain Fox, but had to take care of her sister for a while. When she comes back to town, Fox is gone, supposedly in love with the mysterious Mrs Mabb. But Venetia isn’t ready to give him up so easily.
I loved this story of a woman setting out to save her lover, showing the persistence in the face of all bad odds that is usually reserved to men in stories (and that help to show us the double standards in judging male and female characters). It also has a dry sense of humor that made it hugely enjoyable.
The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse
The Duke of Wellington comes to the town of Wall for a night, but when his horse wanders off, he ends somewhere else entirely.
This story is basically a piece of Stardust fanfiction, bringing the world of Stardust and the world of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell together. It’s a short piece and felt a little uninspired to me, but it’s still quite atmospheric.
Mr Simonelli, or the Fairy Widower
Alessandro Simonelli accepted a position as rector in the small village Allhope. Before he can get settled in, he is called on by John Hollyshoes, the local nobleman, to help with the delivery of his baby. But things are strange at Hollyshoes’ house, and Simonelli discovers that they are more connected than he thought.
Written as the diary of Simonelli, this story captures Simonelli’s boisterous assholery while keeping him interesting enough to make me read the story. That the sisters he meets are an obvious nod to Pride & Prejudice is also really nice. It’s probably not my favorite story of the collection, but I liked it nonetheless.
Tom Brightwind, or How the Fairy Bridge was Built at Thoresby
David Montefiore and Tom Brightwind, his fairy friend, are traveling together when they make station at Thoresby, a strange little town that dreams of a bridge to make everything better.
I liked both Tom and David as characters, but the story itself didn’t strike me too much. I did like that it is annotated with footnotes (an, in my opinion, underused element in fiction).
Antickes and Frets
Mary, Queen of Scots, is sent away to stay with Bess of Hardwick, a woman she has very little patience for. Until Mary discovers that Bess may have a magical secret. One that Mary could use to her own political advantage.
I liked the characterization of Mary here that was at once not glorifying and to a certain extent even unsympathetic, and yet very understandable. Bess herself – though only seen through Mary’s unkind eyes – was also really interesting. Yet the story didn’t quite capture my attention.
John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner
A poor Charcoal Burner gets in the way of John Uskglass, fairy king. Surprisingly, it might be the Raven King who draws the short end in this encounter.
John Uskglass is the second character that already featured heavily in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and it was nice to return to him as well, albeit in a very different way. This story is more of a folk-tale of a human rather unwittingly outwitting a fairy, a fun twist and a good end for the collection.
Summarizing: if you have any love for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, you should read this. And if you want to figure out if you would like the novel (of rather epic proportions), this is an excellent way to find out.