"The Ladies of Grace Adieu" by Susanna Clarke. After a quote from a female magician about the nature of magic, the opening of this story seems at first to be familiar territory. We are firmly in the Regency world of Jane Austen or, as it seemed to me, Georgette Heyer: "Cassandra Parbringer at twenty was considered an ideal of a certain type of beauty to which some gentlemen are particularly partial."
If this were Heyer, we would confidently expect that, by the end of the story, Miss Parbringer will be well on her way to happy-ever-after marriage. Instead, however, the story moves swiftly into Gothic territory with a description of the house in which Cassandra's friend Miss Tobias is governess, and to her small charges' fear of owls. With the arrival of a wicked and dissolute guardian and his entourage we are in a sinister world where all may not be not as it seems.
The final characters to arrive are Jonathan Strange and his wife, familiar to readers of Clarke's superb novel, Jonathan Strange and and Norrell. Here I have a slight quibble about this story, in that it could just as easily be a missing chapter from that book. Indeed, I am not certain how successful any of the stories in this collection would be if the reader is not already familiar with the novel, since a great deal of the background about the nature of magic in Clarke's alternative England comes from that source. For the prepared reader not much scene-setting is actually needed. However, in the structure of its plot this does work as a enjoyable standalone, and the world she has created offers a wonderful vehicle for a modern and original take on the fairy tale.
Clarke's style of storytelling is very quiet and unshowy, the details dropped in quite limpidly, but those details combine to create a vivid setting, and a good deal of information is conveyed in short conversations. The village setting is atmospheric and convincing. The wicked guardian calls to mind Helen's husband in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall most effectively.
I enjoyed this story very much - part of my comfort with it derives, I think, from its adherence to the conventions of the fairy tale, a genre I grew up reading avidly. I haven't read the rest of the collection yet, but I look forward to them.
This week I am hosting Short Story Monday. If you have posted about a Short Story today and would like to leave a link to it in the comments, please do so!