Having been greatly entertained by the recent series of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell on BBC One, it reminded me of something I stumbled across a while ago when still researching the social history of Nostell Priory in Yorkshire. Needless to say, the suitably impressive Yorkshire locations chosen by the BBC for the drama meant I would also be wasting a golden opportunity to show some hidden connections to both the themes and backdrop of the series.
The drama is an adaptation of a book of the same name by Susanna Clarke and much of the reviews highlight the work as historical fiction and fantasy. Set in the early nineteenth century, the theory and practice of magic is the very heart of the tale and allows Clarke to subvert traditional systems and social frameworks such as class and industry: the north of England is mystical not industrial and the black servant may yet be destined to be a king. On a wider scale even Englishness itself is toyed with.
The drama is set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars and the Battle of Waterloo more specifically. The latter saw its 200 year anniversary only recently on the 18th June. Therefore there is obviously something immensely topical about the timing of the production. And yet, there is intentional English patriotism which sees the English Army and Navy look for ever more inventive ways to defeat the niggling French enemy of old. Here’s where Strange and Norrell attempt to give English magic a firm platform from which it can be taken seriously once again.
I’m all for an eerie tale of make-believe set against gritty real life and the human condition, moral codes and physical frailties. I think it helps us see the past better. And so, it made me recall a snippet I read in the Leeds Intelligencer dated 12 December 1786 about a Dr. Katterfelto who had been to stay at Lady Winn’s at Nostell for 5 nights and had therefore missed an engagement in town. That engagement was to be his first lecture in Leeds and one which was to have incorporated the varied themes of ‘philosophical, mathematical, electrical, magnetical, optical, physical, pneumatic, hydraulic, hydrostatic, proctic, and styangraphic art.’ In other words, he was experimental!
Gustavus Katterfelto was Belgium-born and had been keen to make a name for himself in London using his Solar Microscope with which he claimed the ‘insects’ causing the flu pandemic of 1782 could be seen. By 1784 his shows had attracted royalty. However, Katterfelto wasn’t so great at handling fame when it did catch up with him. The public inevitably raised concerns about the freedom given to his ‘insects’ and whether they were implicit in spreading the flu. Such bad press persuaded Katterfelto to publicise the death of his ‘insects’ in some terrible accident. Within days Katterfelto had suddenly been struck with the flu himself…or so he wanted people to believe. He took to travelling north to Yorkshire and frequently visited Whitby. Throughout the region he attempted to sell elixirs and perform conjuring tricks in the form of lectures in order to maintain an air of scientific capability and mysticism hinting that his powers and the black cats with which he entertained had demonic origins.
Sabine, Lady Winn (nee d’Herwart) was of Swiss French origin and had come to Nostell Priory in the mid 1760s as the wife of Sir Rowland Winn later the 5th Baronet. Although vivacious and carefree, Sabine struggled to connect with Rowland’s extended family and was perpetually concerned with health matters especially those associated with aging. When Rowland died in an accident in 1785, Sabine withdrew from public life and became reclusive. Katterfelto’s presence in her adopted land must have presented her with a cause to reclaim something of her former self.
Without doubt it was Sabine’s hypochondriac nature that made Katterfelto so attractive a guest. And just like Jonathan Strange and Norrell his occupation brought hope as well as wonderment. Here is a simple snippet, an apology for absence reported in the local press, but Katterfelto would have been well-received at Nostell Priory by the the reclusive Lady Winn. There is nothing unbecoming or untoward about the meeting – Sabine is difficult to analyse for sure but during her widowhood suffered greatly from sheer detachment – this strange conjurer was something of a curiosity. He came from the continent like Sabine, and had also experienced high society which he too had chosen to dismiss. For five nights they would have discussed these, the borders between conjuring and science, and the study of disease and general maladies.
Having studied Sabine for a long time, I admit it is difficult to see her as a truly compassionate creature. There is something frivolous about her personality. Yet, I like to think that her guest offered a mix of magic and awe, but also philosophical debate which had been dismantled from her social life since the untimely death of her husband. And here is the human condition laid out in similar fashion throughout Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Human frailties – disease, madness, mortality, and loneliness are challenged but to win is to come at a heavy price. We hope that magic can exist when really it is the imagination which provides the best means of survival.
So these men are intellectually alluring as well as captivating in their occupation. What the book and BBC adaptation alludes to so well is the setting and the involvement of the elite in the promotion and manipulation of these characters. Lady Winn plays host to Katterfelto, but she is intrigued by him in the same way any number of wealthy individuals are in the early episodes of the TV drama. Like Mr. Norrell, Katterfelto is invited into sumptuous town houses and country residences. He put himself on display and attempted to champion something loosely based on academic theory and practice.
Though Nostell doesn’t feature in the BBC drama adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, it struck me that the Yorkshire locations are linked by fine threads. We see furniture made for Nostell in the bookshop (a withdrawing room at Temple Newsam), and the immense facade and austere interiors of the mighty Wentworth Woodhouse – a political base for the Rockinghamites and close friends of the Winn family. Indeed, the majority of locations are interlinked somewhere because they are in Yorkshire and therefore neighbours. Norrell is a Yorkshireman in full stereotype; he is stubborn and earthy, cautious yet outspoken. I wonder what Katterfelto thought of Yorkshire in the end, afterall, he didn’t leave – he died in 1799 and was buried at Bedale Church!
David Paton-Williams, Katterfelto: Prince of Puff (Leicester), 2008
Gustavus Katterfelto http://www.geniimagazine.com/magicpedia/Gustavus_Katterfelto and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gustavus_Katterfelto
Jonathan Strange, Mr. Norrell and their creator author Susanna Clarke https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathan_Strange_%26_Mr_Norrell and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susanna_Clarke
BBC locations for Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/2y60xGs7C1QpyLkx4zBpcPl/where-was-jonathan-strange-mr-norrell-filmed
General overview of locations for Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell http://www.creativeengland.co.uk/story/where-was-bbc-drama-jonathan-strange-and-mr-norrell-filmed-
Filming in Yorkshire http://www.creativeengland.co.uk/story/i-love-filming-in…yorkshire