In celebration of Susanna Clarke’s forthcoming novel Piranesi, her first in over fifteen years, we will be reviewing her entire published catalog over the summer. Susanna Clarke’s work is beloved by the blog and we cannot wait to jump into it and share it together—and we especially cannot wait for her new book! Over the next few weeks we’ll be featuring reviews of the short stories from The Ladies of Grace Adieu, read along and let us know what you think!
“The Ladies of Grace Adieu,” by Susanna Clarke
From, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, Bloomsbury (2006)
Women and power are in the forefront of this fantastic tale. Taking place in the same world as Clarke’s New York Times bestselling novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the story revolves around three women, the Ladies of Grace Adieu, who take control of their own fates. The women are all content with the trajectory of their lives and are diligent in doing the song and dance of appearing normal, but when a few new men enter town—among them the famed magician Jonathan Strange—the ladies take action to secure their way of life and show the might of magic in the hands of a woman.
While this story does not require reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell to understand and enjoy it, it does enrich the novel’s world and enforces the struggle that some of its characters (I’m looking at you Strange) are grappling with. Even without the novel, this story fills out its characters and the history of the moment that they are in alike. The result is a layered story that can be read once for pleasure and then be read again and again and again to construct the pieces that are before you.
What I find most enduring about this story is the way that it resists the fantasy trope to make female protagonists purely wholesome creatures who would sacrifice themselves to change one leaf on a tree from changing in the fall. While there is a place for these characters, it is not in this story. “The Ladies of Grace Adieu” features a trio of women who are made multidimensional by the “unpretty” decisions they make in the name of their autonomy and survival. For instance, Mrs. Field did not want to marry Mr. Field, who is double her age, but she knew that it was what was expected of her, and also that it grants her a degree of security that allows her to pursue her other interests with the other ladies.
The Ladies of Grace Adieu are not just women who pretend to go with the grain, however, they are decisive women who are not afraid to take action to protect what they have worked to build. They use what is at their disposal to deal with the obstacles that present themselves—unfortunately for their enemies, the weapon the Ladies of Grace Adieu have is magic. Free of consternation, they wield magic to do as they please and they will not be told otherwise.
If you’re looking for a magical tale of empowered women, this story is for you. If you’re looking for a story full of rich history and dry humor, this story is for you. If you’re looking for a story that would be perfect to read before bed, this story is for you.
Like cheese and wine, art can be best when consumed together. Why not try “Spellwork,” by Austra with this post.