This page written circa 1 August, 2015.
Strange & Norrell is not about magic. Well, of course it is, the plot revolves around these two exponents of magic returning the use of magic to an early-19th-century England from which magic has disappeared, but this is merely the plot, the vehicle upon which Susanna Clarke pushes her themes. The style is "Austenesque" to the extent that English stereotypes are caricatured, but I do not think that aspect is the main aim. The book is described as having a "winningly matter-of-fact use of the supernatural", which is very true. The book is an "alternate history", quite true but not a very useful reflection upon its worth. The book is in the fantasy genre, ditto. Wikipedia concatenates the opinions of a bunch of critics who see the themes including friendship, reason and madness, Englishness, and the struggles for emancipation of slaves and women. Yep, all good.
Apparently worlds away, Marcel Pelgrom, writing in Solid-State Circuits Magazine volume 7, number 1, 2015, presents a marvellous commentary on the electronics designers he has known. It is entitled "The Living and the Dead". In this article electronics designers are divided into two types, the routine, laborious, meticulous, type, pushing the gain up 3dB here or the power output there, and the exciting, creative, imaginative type who dream up new and clever things or converge on elegant solutions. Guess which is which. What is surprising is the number of people who have said that this expresses their thoughts, it is as if many were thinking this but nobody wanted to own up to the thought until it was expressed by someone else. I might describe some as "natural" electronics people and others as "sloggers".
Last year I did a marvellous paper on "Human Resource Management". As was the case in a lot of the papers in the certificate course the main outcome was to throw into stark relief the poor performance of some parts of Waikato U, but I did learn a large amount of useful stuff. One of the most interesting was the correlation between factors you might look for during job interviews and the hindsight-tested peformance evaluation of candidates... in other words, what you should look for if you are going to hire someone. Hands down, the most important attribute is "GMA". GMA stands for general mental ability, what you probably think when someone says "IQ", a measure of their ability to think and make intelligent decisions. This is more telling than their integrity, vastly more important than their experience. So when you hire someone, pick the smart one, no matter what. In real estate it's location, location, & location. For getting a job done, it's smarts, smarts, & smarts.
This brings me to what I see as the main theme and commentary in the story Strange & Norrell. Mr Norrell is a hard-working, desperately-megalomaniacal magician, hoarding books more to keep them from others than to expand his learning, struggling to understand magic, ignorant of mechanisms behind his spells, and not infrequently ignorant of their attendant risks. Strange, in contrast, picks up magic as a person with perfect pitch picks up music. He instinctively knows what spells have attendant risks. Norrell admires, envies, fears, and curses Strange as Salieri did Mozart in Amadeus. Norrell is the mixed-up slogger. Strange is the natural. The inevitable conflict between the inferior man in the higher position and the superior man as the underdog gives a lot of the power of the story.
Without wanting to deliver spoilers, I quite like the anticlimactic ending.