This week I’m recommending a collection of stories by Susanna Clarke – `The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories” – which was published in 2006. Clarke is well known for her sprawling Fantasy novel `Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ but I feel that her talents are best suited to writing short stories. Two of the stories in this collection feature characters familar from `Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ but you don’t need to have read the novel in order to enjoy these stories. `The Ladies of Grace Adieu’ is available in paperback or as an ebook. I particularly recommend the audio version on cd or as a download, though you would then miss out on the charming old-fashioned illustrations which adorn the printed version.

This book  contains eight stories, all set in England during various periods from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. Let me tempt you with a brief summary of the contents. The title story involves three village ladies who practise an unusual form of magic in a good cause.  Jonathan Strange makes a guest appearance but thankfully not Mr Norrell (whom I would nominate as `Most Boring Wizard in Fantasy Fiction’). `On Lickerish Hill’ is a spirited retelling of the traditional English version of `Rumpelstiltskin’. In `Mrs Mabb’ a young woman struggles to find and rescue the  man she loves from the Fairy Queen, while  in `The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse’ the Iron Duke unexpectedly  has to cope with a magical `problem of needlework’. `Mr Simonelli or the Fairy Widower’  explains how a handsome clergyman ends up having to propose to five sisters  in one morning. `Tom Brightwind Or How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby’ deals with an unusual friendship between a kindly Jewish doctor and a Fairy Prince and a town with a curse on it. `Antickes and Frets’ involves Mary Queen of Scots, magic, murder and embroidery while in `John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner’ three Saints help a poor man to get the better of the Raven King, the greatest magician in England.

A distinctive feature of Clarke’s work is that she sometimes chooses to write in the style of the period at which a story is set. For example , Miranda’s first person narrative in `On Lickerish Hill’  has full-blooded 17th century language and spelling – `Angrilie shee foretold that terrible Catastrophes would befall me (povertie, marriage to beggars and gypsies, etc., etc.) . But, as Mr Aubrey sayz, such Beautie as mine could not long remain  undiscover’d, and so it waz that I married Sir John Sowreston…’  Many lovers of English literature will enjoy this sort of pastiche; others may find it annoying.  The title story shows that few people can imitate the elegance and wit of Jane Austen as well as Clarke. I feel that Clarke’s ornate and formal style works better at short story length than it did in `Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’. Her short stories are full of humour and, unlike the novel, feature plenty of strong-minded female characters. They also contain subtle horrors evoked by details such as the sound of a shovel being pushed into a fire, the pattern on a floor, or a mouthful of bones hidden in a napkin.

What I enjoyed most about `Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ were the footnotes outlining the history of magic and the Fairy realms in Clarke’s alternate England. These two topics dominate the stories in `The Ladies of Grace Adieu’. Clarke is clearly very knowledgeable about British Fairy lore and uses genuine traditions in her own unique way. The rescue of a lover or child from Fairyland is a common theme in European folktales but in `Mrs Mabb’ Clarke plays with  contradictory beliefs about the size of Fairies. Are Fairies tiny and insect-like or the same height as ordinary people? In this story they are both; to the bemusement of the heroine. Another tradition is that only those with the `Sight’ can perceive the Fairy Realm as it really is. Much of  `Mr Simonelli or the Fairy Widower’  is very funny but when  a kidnapped girl thinks she’s sitting on a golden throne in a beautiful chamber with crystal pillars and rose-coloured velvet curtains, Mr Simonelli can see that she’s actually  manacled to a chair in a bare damp room full of rat-holes. The effect is very disturbing.  Clarke writes of one Fairy `that Mrs Mabb’s wickedness chiefly consisted in being very rich and never doing anything if she did not like it.’  The capricious Fairies in these stories do indeed behave with the callous selfishness of the very rich. They are completely indifferent to the suffering they cause to ordinary people. The cool, seemingly heartless manner in  which Clarke writes about this makes the stories authentically chilling.

In these stories women do not enjoy the powers and freedoms of men, even if they are human Queens or Fairy Princesses, so a girl like Miranda can be locked up by her husband until she’s spun enough flax for him. Clarke twists the Rumpelstiltskin story to emphasize how an intelligent young woman with a `naturall Genius’ for scholarship is being forced into behaving like the perfect housewife. Luck allows Miranda to defeat a malicious Fairy and her bad-tempered husband, while other stories in the collection show women using special forms of magic based on traditional female skills, such as embroidery. Some of the embroidery done by Mary Queen of Scots while she was a prisoner does survive. When I first saw it I wondered what kind of woman embroiders a hideous spider on a bedspread. A very angry and desperate one, Clarke suggests.  In `Antickes and Frets’ Mary tries to harm her enemies through the malice in her needlework but it’s left unclear whether she succeeds. My favourite story in this volume is `The Ladies of Grace Adieu’ and not just because it is set in Gloucestershire where I live. Two of the ladies are those traditionally powerless figures – a governess and a poor spinster – while the third is not much better off as the second wife of a tedious man. When children are threatened, the three friends choose to draw on an ancient and ruthless power. They are transformed and the way that they exult in their new power bodes ill for the menfolk of Grace Adieu. Read it and shiver. Until next week…