After reading “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” for the first time, I remember coming away very irritated about Arabella Strange.
I was instantly excited on finding out that Strange would be married. There were all sorts of expectations triggered by it: perhaps she would become a magician as well, or there would be some sort of epic romance. But it didn’t happen. No promises were made beyond “there is a wife,” and no promises are fulfilled. Arabella Strange had virtually no role in the story until the very end, and then she is a catalyst rather than a real player. To be perfectly frank, Mrs. Strange boring.is
On reread, it seems that her role is almost conspicuously slight. She can’t have more than 15 speaking scenes in a thousand-page book. She appears often, but does very little. Her personality is repeatedly described as “charming,” and her apparently sparkling conversation draws many admirers, but we never get to read almost any of this apparently wonderful dialogue. She makes a few perceptive observations, but she is like a lost minor Austen character, a version of Elizabeth Bennett without the crackling dialogue, character arc, or opinions.
This wouldn’t be quite so conspicuous if she weren’t one of only three major female characters. Of the others, Lady Pole vanishes for perhaps hundreds of pages at a time, and Flora doesn’t appear until almost the end of the novel. Not only is there an Arabella Strange-shaped hole in the book, there’s almost a woman-shaped hole in it too. It just feels odd.
They changed this in the TV show. A lot. Arabella Strange has a forceful personality, has her own opinions both positive and negative of other characters (she dislikes absolutely no one but Drawlight in the novel), and is possessed of fierceness and loyalty. She also, not coincidentally, has a far stronger and more lasting bond with Jonathan Strange. (Lady Pole also has a much larger role on the show, but that is due largely to plot reasons, not character ones).
Why this difference? I honestly am not sure. I can’t lie: I like Arabella Strange better on the show than in the novel. But I can’t discount the absolute fact that Susanna Clarke is way smarter than I am, and there’s no way she didn’t know exactly what she was doing with Arabella Strange. So why did she put such a boring character in such an interesting position, just to the right of the spotlight?