Season 1, Episode 4: Midpoint Shift
Sue: Hello and welcome to the Mommy’s Pen podcast. I’m your host, Sue Campbell, a writer and children’s book author and I’m here with my cohost, my 11-year-old daughter, Nora Campbell. Say hi, Nora.
Sue: Uh, today we are so excited to talk about, um, one of our favorite books and maybe my favorite piece of story structure. So the book is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. It is not a kids book, um, but both Nora and I have read it multiple times and listened to the audio book recording, which is excellent, multiple times. Um, and it has a wonderful midpoint shift, so it’s a great book to help, um, illustrate that concept.
Sue: And again this is not a kids’ book. It’s an adult novel, so parents, if you wanna share it with your child, I would definitely read it first and then make the call if you think it’s appropriate for your particular child.
Sue: Do you wanna describe the book, or do you want me to describe the book?
Nora: You can.
Sue: So Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is set in the Regency period of England, and maybe noticing a trend that we read a lot of historical fiction. Um, but it’s also a fantasy novel, uh, and the premise is that magic has been dead in England for 300 years, and no one knows why, and the only magicians in England are theoretical magicians, so basically academics who study magic, the way it used to be done. But magic is-
Nora: Basically, they do nothing.
Sue: Basically, they do nothing, um, but sit around and, um-
Sue: … and talk. Uh, they don’t do any actually magic. Um, and there’s, uh … the first character we’re introduced to, who is delightful and sweet, is John Segundus, and he wants to know why: why is magic, um, not done in England any longer? And so he sets out to try to answer that question.
Sue: And he finds a man named Mr. Norrell. And Mr. Norrell, it turns out, is actually a practicing practical magician, and the dearest desire of his heart is to restore magic to England.
Sue: So that’s the basic set up.
Sue: Yeah. Nora, do you want to talk about Jonathan Strange, the character?
Nora: Well, Jonathan Strange is, like, the opposite of Mr. Norrell. He’s also a magician who’s trying to restore magic, but he’s, like, totally different, right, mom?
Sue: Yes, so Mr. Norrell’s kind of, um, stuffy. Uh, he’s definitely introverted. He’s a little bit cranky and curmudgeon, curmudgeonly.
Nora: He’s afraid of mice and cats.
Sue: Yes. And how would you describe Jonathan Strange?
Nora: Basically, the opposite of that.
Sue: So Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell mostly takes place in the Regency Period. Can you tell us a little bit about the Regency Period, Nora?
Nora: Well, George III’s daughter, his youngest and favorite, died of tuberculosis. And he was sad about that. So he went insane. So his son, the future George IV, had to be Regent, which means he’s basically King, except no one respects him. And people wrote terrible satires about him. And there were, and there was the Napoleonic Wars, and there was violence and bloodshed, and ridiculousness.
Sue: And what do you like about the Regency Period?
Nora: I like their amazing clothes, and dramatic-ness, and floriography, except for not floriography, ’cause that was started in the Victorian Era.
Sue: What exactly is floriography?
Nora: Well, it’s like, you can send flowers to people, and they mean things. So you could, if you send someone a dead white rose, it means “I’d rather be dead than go out with you.”
Nora: (laughs) I’ve always wanted to send Duncan one.
Sue: (laughs) Oh, dear.
Nora: So you’ve already asked me what my favorite part of the Regency was, and I have such a short, um, remembrance, excuse me, memory, that I forget. But what’s your favorite part of the Regency?
Sue: Um, that is-
Nora: Apart from Jane Austen.
Sue: Well, that was gonna be my answer (laughs).
Sue: Um, of course, I do love all the, the trappings, the, the clothes, and the, and the manners. Um, I really love, uh-
Nora: Some of the manners are terrible.
Nora: But I’m not gonna say them right now, ’cause they’re really, really terrible. And they’d probably make you vomit if you are prone to nausea.
Sue: Hm. Actually, I think we should explore this a little bit.
Sue: Um, but I once got rejected by an agent for having a kid vomit in one of my novels, so-
Sue: … um, but, please tell me what you have in mind, like, maybe one of the more gentler things that you have in mind, that was gross during the Regency.
Nora: Well, I just have one thing in my mind right now, and it’s really not something I should talk about, right now.
Sue: Well, just talk about it. And we can cut it out if we want to.
Nora: (laughs) Okay, fine. If you were at a Georgian dinner party, and the Regency was during the Georgian Period, so it could have been then, I don’t know, probably still was, and, um, you had to go to the bathroom, it was considered rude to get up from the table, so you just called the servant to bring you a chamber pot.
Sue: Oh, dear God.
Sue: Because it’s set in the Regency Period, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell has a lot of, um, Jane Austen-like flavors. In fact, I heard an interview with Susanna Clarke: originally, she was going to set it, um, a little further back in history, and she decided that, um, having Jane Austen as a guide to the way people spoke then, and to the way, um, social life worked, was really, really helpful. So she decided to scoot Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell up into the Regency Period.
Sue: And then, of course, throughout the book, we get little hints of other eras and other times, um, hearkening back to when, uh, English magic was in its glory. So there’s a lot of great, um, little historical tidbits, uh, throughout the book.
Sue: And the book, um, Jonathan Strange, the character, gets sent off to the Napoleonic Wars, to help, um, the Duke of Wellington, who, at the time, is Lord Wellington, um-
Nora: And then is the Duke of Wellington when he goes back to the war later.
Sue: Right, um, helps him fight the war. So the historical research that went into it, um, was pretty amazing. It took Susanna Clarke 10 years to write this book, and once you read it-
Nora: It was her first novel.
Sue: It was her first novel. Um, and once you read it, you’ll be so grateful that she hung in there, ’cause it’s just fantastic.
Sue: So in this book, we have the two magicians, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and we also have, um, a lot of magicians from England’s … fictitious magical past, um, the most important of which is the Raven King.
Nora: Yeah, but that’s not his real name, ’cause no one knows his real name, and that comes up later in the book, because it’s just, like, what’s his name? Um, how are we gonna something him, if we don’t know his real name?
Sue: But, of course, my favorite character in the book is the gentleman with the thistledown hair.
Nora: He’s my least favorite, ’cause he’s so evil. Like, he’s so funny, but I like him like that. But there are also characters that I like much better.
Sue: So who’s your favorite character?
Sue: Oh, Childermass is right up there, too. There’s-
Nora: And Lady Pole.
Sue: And Lady Pole is wonderful. Um, the gentleman with the thistledown hair, just to give you a little background, is, um, a fairy who Mr. Norrell summons, um, to try to raise the profile of English magic. But he wants it to be a secret, and he doesn’t ever want to see the fairy again, ’cause he doesn’t believe in using fairies, um, to, to do magic. Uh, and he knows it’s very dangerous. But he kind of, um, opens Pandora’s Jar, as it were, with that one.
Nora: Yeah, and that’s the second time you’ve made that expression about that p- about that part.
Sue: Yes, but not during this podcast.
Nora: Oh, right (laughs).
Sue: I don’t think.
Sue: The other great character I feel we have to mention is Vinculus.
Nora: He’s actually one of my favorites, too.
Sue: So why don’t you tell the audience about Vinculus.
Nora: Um, he’s a street magician, which means he doesn’t do real magic. He just tricks people into saying he will do, and then he takes their money. And there are actually a lot of people in the Regency who actually did this. Um, but he is actually special because of something I can’t say right now.
Sue: Right. But he did, he does have a slightly larger role than just being a conman.
Sue: So each week on this podcast, we not only discuss a book; we also discuss an element of story structure. So in previous episodes, we’ve talked about, um, the inciting incident. Uh, the inciting incident is basically, um, an initial story event that really hooks the reader and sucks them into the story. Um, we talked about the first plot point, which is a story event that really sets the character on the path that they’re gonna be walking throughout the rest of the book. Of course, there can be twists and turns here after, but it basically sets that character on their, their hero’s journey, as it were.
Nora: Yeah, even if, um, usually it happens because, um, they get information, and I’m not sure if you already said that, ’cause I wasn’t listening, but, um, sometimes that information is false.
Sue: Oh, yes, good point. So first plot point, it’s a story event, but it’s also new information, either to the character, or the reader, or both, um, usually both. And sometimes, you know, that initial information or that initial event can be misleading to either the character, or the audience, or both. So, good point, Nora.
Sue: Um, then we also spoke about, um, pinch points. So a pinch point is a story event-
Nora: Ouch, pinch!
Sue: (laughs) Exactly. That pinches the character, um, and reminds the reader of what’s at stake in the story.
Sue: Um, and then this week, we are talking about the midpoint shift. Now, this is maybe my favorite piece of story structure. It plays a really critical role.
Sue: So the midpoint shift, in this story, comes as you might guess, about halfway through the story. Um, in the first half-
Nora: ‘Cause it’s called the midpoint shift.
Sue: Correct. So in the first half of the book, you have a character’s regular life, then about a quarter of the way through the story-
Nora: It gets, it’s, it gets interesting.
Sue: It gets interesting. Hopefully, it’s interesting through the whole thing, um, but-
Nora: Often it’s not.
Sue: Quarter of the way through the story, you have them going on this hero’s journey path, setting out on the path, um, and, but still basically reacting, right? So they have their regular life opening, then they’re reacting to these critical events that are happening, then in the midpoint of the story, you get some new information. The character usually gets new information, um, that causes them to shift, to make a mental shift, and often a shift in their actions, from reacting to being proactive, to make a, a plan of their own that they’re going to carry out, uh, through the rest of the book.
Nora: And, and, excuse me.
Sue: Yes, go ahead.
Nora: Before the midpoint shift, and after the first plot point, they’re just like, “Ah!” (screams).
Nora: And after it, they’re just like, “Ooh.”
Sue: So in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, um, in the first quarter of the book, we see sort of the regular life, and the way things are in England. Um, and then we see Mr. Norrell at about the first plot point, um, bringing magic back to England, proving that magic can still be, um, done, there can be practicing mag- magicians in, in, in that day in age. Um, and then we’re-
Nora: Is that the part where he summons … Mmm … and brings Mmmm back to life?
Nora: (laughs) [inaudible 00:12:15]
Sue: Well, we’re … we’re not gonna analyze first plot point for this book, but there, there are a couple of events, which are very thrilling, so we don’t want to give everything away, um, though it’s pretty early in the book.
Nora: But is it that, mom?
Sue: So I don’t think it could technically be considered a spoiler.
Sue: Yes, you’re very smart.
Sue: Now, shut up.
Sue: Um, and then we meet Jonathan Strange, and see what his regular life was like, and then he sets out on his own journey to become a magician, and ends up being a pupil of Mr. Norrell. So Mr. Norrell sort of takes him on as an apprentice magician, as it were.
Sue: So in the first half of the story, Jonathan Strange is really reacting, um, to, um … you know, he’s letting M- Mr. Norrell do the driving. So he’s reacting and behaving in a student-like manner. Um, halfway through the book, the midpoint shift of the book, Jonathan Strange becomes aware that there is more magic in England than he realized, that it is possible to summon fairies, that fairies are there, they’re behind the scenes, and they’re very powerful.
Sue: So he starts to, um, separate from Mr. Norrell, um, at least in his mind at first.
Nora: And like I said earlier, he’s like, “Ooh.”
Sue: Right, he gets that ooh moment, and he wants to pursue something different than just being, um, Mr. Norrell’s pupil.
Nora: Because he thinks that’s boring, ’cause Mr. Norrell’s boring.
Sue: So true.
Sue: The other thing I love about this novel, that maybe not everybody loves, but many, many people do, are her use of footnotes. Um-
Nora: Which is like chocolate chips and mint ice cream, sort of.
Sue: How- how- how do you mean?
Nora: I mean, it’s, like, extra, with a good thing.
Sue: That’s true. It’s, like, little bonus, bonus sprinkled throughout the book. So, um, because she’s made a very interesting sort of narrative point-of-view choice, um, she’s writing this as if this were a history of everything that happened, and she peppers the entire novel with footnotes. And the footnotes contain references to this magical history of England.
Nora: They’re really good. You should just go through the book, and just read the footnotes.
Sue: Yes, and it’s really stories within stories. They’re just complete story arcs buried in these footnotes. And it’s just so, so beautifully done.
Nora: I love the story about the girl with the ring, and there’s also, like, a goose in the story.
Sue: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Nora: And a baby. I don’t know. Like, and some other stuff.
Sue: Yeah, that’s the Margaret Ford footnote, which is really, really well done.
Sue: Um … um, I forgot what else I was going to say about footnotes.
Nora: You were going to say something amazing, probably.
Sue: Uh, in an interview I heard with Susanna Clarke, she talked about, um, writing the footnotes, and how she really just wrote them for her own pleasure, ’cause she was pretty sure that any editor was gonna make her cut them all out. So it really gave her the freedom to just make them very entertaining and wonderful, just for their own sake. And I’m so glad that she was not made to cut them.
Sue: And you may be wondering, um, because we’ve covered a lot of characters, and a lot of little bits of this story already, is how big is this book? Um, in the copy that we have, it’s about 780 pages.
Sue: Um, so it’s very long, um-
Nora: But it doesn’t feel long when you’re reading it, exactly, right, mom?
Sue: It doesn’t. Uh, though I do caution people that the first chapter or two can feel a little bit slow.
Nora: Extremely boring, like.
Sue: Y- yeah (laughs).
Nora: [inaudible 00:15:48].
Sue: But it’s really worth hanging in there. It’s really, really worth it. Um, and the other, uh, potential that you might want to think about is getting the audiobook version as well. Um, it’s read by this guy named Simon Prebble. He is amazing. And I have now read and listened to this book so many times, um, that I just allow his voice to lull me to sleep, on nights (laughs) when I can’t sleep. I turn on-
Nora: That happens to me, too.
Sue: Yeah, uh, we both do that. We turn on the audiobook, and, um, we go to sleep, ’cause we know the story so well at this point, we’re not missing anything. So I wouldn’t recommend if you are susceptible to calming British voices, um, making you sleepy, uh, that your first time through you do-
Nora: [crosstalk 00:16:28]
Sue: … the audiobook at night. Yes (laughs).
Nora: You could do, um, every time, even if it’s in the daytime, she said, she was listening to the audiobook, she just kept falling asleep.
Sue: She might just be sleep-deprived, too. We should probably just-
Nora: Yeah, but that was before she was really sleep-deprived.
Sue: -Get her some naps. Um, but the audiobook is excellent. So do check it out.
Sue: And if you’re still not persuaded to read this book, um-
Nora: Then just read it.
Sue: (laughs). Uh, you could do that. I, we suggest you just read it anyway, but if you’re persuaded at all by Neil Gaiman, and a fan of Neil Gaiman, uh, he absolutely loves this book, and knew about it while it was being written, and has been a champion for it ever since it came out, which was back in, like, 2000 or 2002. Um, it’s been out for a while.
Sue: Oh, and if you like, um … uh, movie versions.
Nora: I don’t.
Sue: No, and I don’t often either. But the BBC did make a miniseries, which I think miniseries are generally a little better for breaking down big books that-
Nora: Yeah, ’cause they make them a little more interesting, and they’re not just like, “Okay, this happens, and this happens, and this happens.” They’re like, “This happens with this alongside it, and then this …” Yeah, you get the idea.
Sue: Right, the pacing is a lot better in a miniseries, when you’re trying to do-
Sue: When a novel is your source material. Um, so the BBC did a seven-part miniseries a few years ago, um, which I’m sure you can get online. But I wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly how, because I might have bootlegged it.
Nora: Might have?
Sue: But definitely read the book first, ’cause I think the miniseries just … it, it’s great, and it’s very entertaining, and it’s … as a writer, it’s very interesting to watch the choices they made, um, and the changes-
Nora: I don’t like it.
Sue: Then why did you ask to watch the whole thing last week?
Nora: Because I was bored, and it is good. I just don’t like it.
Sue: How … how does-
Sue: How does that make sense?
Nora: Well, it’s not as good as the book, which means I don’t like it. But it is good.
Sue: So you like it.
Nora: No (laughs), I don’t like it, but it’s good.
Nora: Why are you giving me that look like I’m a lunatic?
Sue: So there you have it. That’s all for this week’s episode. Do check us out online at mommyspen.com, where you can sign up for our mailing list. Um, we will be having really cool subscriber-only benefits. Um, some of it might actually involve original artwork by Nora, um, ’cause I want you guys to see some of the amazing, uh, work that she’s done.
Sue: And there will be bonus material from my book, which is-
Nora: As well as stuff we cut from this podcast-
Nora: … which probably shouldn’t be listened to by people who are prone to nausea.
Sue: Very good idea. Um, and then there will be some bonus material related to my novel-
Nora: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Sue: … which is tentatively called, um, The Cat, the Cash, the Leap and the List.
Nora: I’ll still think about it as Martha and the Boys, though.
Sue: And- and we will forever internally, in our family, think about it as Martha and the Boys, ’cause that’s what we called for about five years. Um, but we did need to come up with a title that was a little more meaningful, and told a little more about the story.
Nora: It was meaningful to my heart.
Sue: It is very meaningful. Now, we’re totally, like, off-track of saying goodbye, on this podcast.
Nora: (laughs) Okay, bye. It’s ’cause I started talking, probably. (laughs).
Sue: (laughs). Thanks, everyone for listening, and we’ll see you next week.
Nora: But we won’t “see” you next week, since this is a thing you listen to, so you’ll hear us next week, hopefully, if you didn’t throw up from the information contained (laughs) in this podcast already.
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