So I’ve finally watched the Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell adaptation, and I love what they did with Lady Pole. So much so that I feel the need to blog about it. (Spoilers ahead for both book and TV series).
JS&MN is a book I enjoyed… eventually. I freely confess that it took me three tries to get all the way through it. That’s not as much due to the density of the writing style, or the decidedly odd turn the third act takes, as it might be. I can get through dense writing and weird plots, and I loved the footnotes, but I had trouble attaching myself to any of the characters. If there’s not someone I can empathize with, root for, see myself in, I have trouble connecting to a story. And in JS&MN, a lot of the problem is that the women are frequently such non-figures. Even Arabella Strange, who gets the most on-page time, is almost always seen through someone else’s eyes. She is commented upon, rather than given her own voice, and she is more often acted upon than acting.
The TV adaptation did a lot to beef up Arabella’s part, but it did even more with Lady Pole. In the book, Lady Pole is brought back from the dead by Mr Norrell, who is hoping to get in good with her husband, a prominent politician. Unfortunately, Mr Norrell rather botches the deal he makes with the fairy who brings her back. Norrell promises the fairy (known as the Gentleman) half of her remaining life — thinking that she’ll get to live another 35 years or so, and then get taken away. But that’s not the fairy’s game — he starts taking her nights. When she sleeps, she goes to his castle, Lost-Hope, to a never-ending ball where she must dance and dance.
Unsurprisingly, this exhausts her. She goes through a brief period of mania before sinking into a deep depression. Worse still, the Gentleman has put a curse upon her, so that when she tries to speak of what is happening to her, the words come out as nonsensical fairy tales. No one knows what to make of this — and no one but Norrell knows of the bargain he made — and eventually it’s given out that she’s still “unwell”. No one is willing to put a name to it, just a genteel gloss of “illness” that discourages further investigation. All forms of acknowledgment, of recognition, of validation are denied her.
In the book, Lady Pole sort of fades away into a magically-induced stupor. But in the tv series, she fights back. Though her mind is fracturing, she keeps trying to tell her story. When she manages to get some little bit of it out, that the bells summon her to the dance, she is told that she is overtired and must need to sleep — despite her protestations that sleep is precisely when she is tormented. She expresses herself through fabric-working — a woman’s art — but then that, too, is taken away from her. And she starts to go mad indeed. Anyone with experience being gaslit knows how that can go — get told you’re crazy long enough, and you’ll start to believe it, and Lady Pole has more reason than most, because she’s constantly getting dragged back and forth between two different worlds.
When she tries to take her own life to end the pain, she is prevented. Norrell goes to her to explain himself and her predicament, but then, fearful of what she might reveal, he advises her husband to keep her secluded and not allow her any visitors — which results in Arabella Strange, who might have been able to help her, particularly given her magical husband, being turned away from the house. Lady Pole is thus denied even compassion, even companionship. (Norrell, it should be noted, resorts to classically sexist language to convince Walter Pole to keep the ladies apart, saying his fear that they “excite each others’ emotions”). And so she attempts to assassinate Norrell, the engineer of her suffering, and when she fails, her husband sends her her to what he thinks is a madhouse. Lucky for Lady Pole, it’s really where two would-be magicians are trying to sort out the truth.
At first, they tend to her as one would any invalid. She’s still strapped into her chair, to keep her from hurting herself. They’re begging her to eat (though not forcing her to do so, nor dosing her with laudanum, as had been happening to her in London). At this point, Lady Pole makes an eloquent statement in defense of her agency.
I’m sick of men in coats deciding what is best for me. I may very well hurt myself, but I belong to no one but myself. Half my life, I am in chains. The other half, I deserve to be free. Untie me.
When Childermass comes for her, Segundus defends her with brilliant passion — and Honeyfoot aims a blunderbuss at him. Childermass actually gives him a clue in parting, and it’s not long after that that Segundus decides to follow his own instincts and remove her restraints. And following that, Lady Pole declares for herself “I shall feel more comfortable here.”
Unsurprisingly, she stabilizes. Mr. Segundus can see a rose at her mouth — a magical symbol of the stories she cannot tell — and though he does not know what it means or what’s going on with her, he at least believes that something is happening. He can see the residue of magic on her. And bless him, he listens to her, even when she’s spinning mad stories. He treats her kindly, not with a mix of terror and disdain (which is how most men in JS&MN, as indeed in life, respond to women who are beyond their comprehension).
Lo and behold, when she is heard and believed, she is healthier. The series does a great job visualizing this. Her skin looks healthier. Her hair is neater. Her eyes are more focused. She still has frantic moments, but her desperation is more controlled and clear-eyed. She’s not restored entirely — the Gentleman still torments her nights, after all — but she definitely improves.
And it’s then easier to get to the root of what’s happening to her, what’s tormenting her. When Lady Pole isn’t caught in such a struggle just to be heard, it becomes apparent that even through those seeming-nonsense stories, she’s till trying to find a way to communicate. The Gentleman has her telling fairy tales, so she starts picking out the ones that speak to her situation in some way. Segundus and Honeyfoot start to figure this out, and they start to unravel the mystery — unfortunately, their well-meant intervention pulls Lady Pole out of a plot she had willfully entered, to remain in Lost-Hope long enough to show a by-then-bewitched Arabella the way out. It’s another neat commentary on her agency and how it is hobbled — they think they’re helping a fragile and entrapped woman, only to discover that she knew exactly what she was doing and had chosen it for herself, and they made a muck of everything.
Lady Pole in book was something of a non-entity. The basic beats are more or less the same, but whereas the book’s Lady Pole is passive, her story related to us second- and third-hand, on the screen, we see her more frequently. We see her alone. We hear her shout and scream. We see her act, or try to, and we are her confidantes.
And so it was Lady Pole in the TV series who spoke to me in a profound way. She’s gone from being a catatonic object in the background, a mere symbol of one man’s poor judgment and reckless ambition, to a wretchedly beautiful commentary on women’s stories being silenced — and how hard women will fight to be heard. Her frustration, her agony, her tenuous hold on sanity are both powerful and achingly familiar.