Not Entirely Flattering: Revealing Mr Simonelli’s Fairy Nature
Susanna Clarke’s first follow-up to hugely successful Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was a lavishly illustrated volume of short stories, some of which intertwined with the world of the novel. ‘Mr Simonelli, or the Fairy Widower’ features characters mentioned in the novel, expanding the scope of this already rich alternate history. In the course of the story the titular figure transforms from arrogant scholar to agonized suitor and finally to true fairy. While the information supplied by the fairy John Hollyshoes reveals the truth of his inheritance, Simonelli discovers that he has been performing as fairy all along. What he considered to be a difference of temperament, fueled by his recognition of class difference within the hallowed halls of Cambridge, turns out instead to be part of his non-human nature. Is his performance as human or fairy more convincing? Which is ‘truer’? Almost nothing in the story is what it seems to be, but when truth is uncovered, it is Simonelli’s turn to tell lies, half-truths and misdirect others. In the Butlerian sense, he seizes ‘the reiterative power of discourse’ to sway the narrative and characters to his will. However, revelation of his ‘true’ nature does not entirely switch his orientation from the human to the fairy. He works to save human women from the predations of his relation Hollyshoes—even going so far in later years, we are told, to work for the education of women generally—a sharp contrast to his earlier dismissive misogyny. As Sara Ahmed argues, ‘If orientations point us to the future, to what we are moving toward, then they also keep open the possibility of changing directions, of finding other paths’ (569). Perhaps fairy orientation need not live up to Norrell’s dismissal of the ‘race’ as ‘poisonous’ and ‘inimical to England’ and all human life.
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