It isn’t fair to compare an author’s second book to their first, particularly when it must follow the phenomenal Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but the comparison is inevitable when Strange returns for a cameo appearance in The Ladies of Grace Adieu, Susanna Clarke’s collection of short stories (now available in paperback). One title character (Strange) meets the others in the first of these stories set in the same England/Faerie as Clarke’s debut novel. The Duke of Wellington and John Uskglass the Raven King are likewise featured again, and Mary, Queen of Scots, joins the ranks of nobility who find their paths crossed by fairy magic. “On Lickerish Hill” is a retelling of the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin with more emphasis on the fairy tale.
The best story in the collection, “Mr Simonelli or the Fairy Widower,” is one which bears no striking resemblance to any of its predecessors. It is comprised of a letter from Reverend Simonelli proclaiming his innocence to an influential parishioner, Mrs. Gathercole, the mother of five unmarried daughters, followed by his own journal entries recounting his remarkable encounters with an insidious fairy incongruously named John Hollyshoes. Simonelli took drastic measures to protect the Gathercole family from the fairy, and it is these measures which he must justify to their mother.
The three magical ladies of Grace Adieu cannot match the abilities of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and the same can be said of their eponymous books. The Ladies of Grace Adieu seems to be an expansion of the ubiquitous footnotes found in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell rather than a stand-alone work. That may not bother some readers, but Clarke’s second spell is less potent than her first.