I was aware that in JS&MN I was writing a back-to-front story, a story with holes in it through which we can catch glimpses of another, secret story being played out. I even keep a similar story in my head as a sort of touchstone of the kind of stories I like to tell. The hour has come but not the man is a Scottish folktale about a kelpie, a sort of water-spirit, who is observed rising up from a false ford in a river and shrieking, “The hour is come but not the man.” This, though very alarming, means nothing to anybody, until a distraught rider is observed haring along the road towards the river. He attempts to drown himself in the river, but is prevented by kindly bystanders who lock him in a church. Whereupon he drowns himself in the font and the water-spirit is satisfied.
Perhaps JS&MN isn’t seen from the wrong side to quite the same extent as the above, but there are whole elements of which our two magicians remain unaware throughout the book—and beyond. Stephen’s travails on behalf of the two women, for example. And Strange and Norrell never really comprehend how far they are tools of John Uskglass. (They grasp a bit of Uskglass’s intentions but not in the way that Vinculus and Childermass do.)
I suppose a more modern way of writing back-to-front stories is to make them mysteries. Thus Great Expectations looks as if it is a picaresque tale of the rise of a young blacksmith, but the plot has a hidden element, glimpsed from time to time; once that hidden element is revealed, everything we thought we knew about the main story is completely changed. Great stuff, if you can manage it.
Susanna Clarke, Women and men; servants and masters; England and the English