Born about the year 1779, Strange lost his mother at the age of four, and so spent much of his early life with his cousins the Erquistounes in Edinburgh, as by a family arrangement his aunt and uncle looked after him for most of each year in the stead of his own father. (His father was not affectionate by nature, and did not value the opportunity of forming his only son's character as he ought.) It is observed by John Segundus that Jonathan Strange has always preferred the company of clever women to that of men; it is perhaps because of spending so much time with his female relations.
It is not clear where Strange went to school. Certainly he may have spent his early years in Edinburgh sharing lessons with his girl cousins but since we are not told his health was delicate it is unlikely he was educated entirely at home. There is alas good reason to suppose that, prior to dedicating himself to the study of magic, Strange found difficulty in concentrating his mind on any pursuit for long. Subjects which briefly captured his interest at odd times included poetry; farming; engineering; industry; the law; theology; and the popular craze for fossils. Shortly after the death of his father however, who had scorned the projected match with Arabella Woodhope on mercenary grounds, Strange married the lady. Ironically, it was on the way to visit Miss Woodhope to ask for her hand that Strange first encountered Vinculus, heard out his prophecy with the greatest scepticism in the world - and nevertheless shortly took it into his head to become a magician.
Strange spent a year studying magic independently before his association with Norrell. During this time, he achieved a surprising degree of proficiency in the art, notably contacting the spirit of Maria Absalom using a series of spells mostly of his own composition. It can be assumed that Strange has a strongly intuitive grasp of magical theory since he likens magic to "music playing at the back of one's head - one simply knows what the next note will be." At Mr. Norrell's invitation he demonstrated his expertise by causing a book* to change places with its own reflection. The novelty of this magic so charmed Mr. Norrell that he instantly proposed that Strange become his pupil.
*English Magic, by Jeremy Tott
Campaign in the Peninsula
As is well-known, Britain's struggle against Buonaparte and the revolutionary ideas of the French had not been attended with any great degree of success prior to the Duke of Wellington's campaign in the Spanish peninsula. There the tide of war began to turn. The government, keenly aware that in one theatre of battle at least its forces were having some success, determined at last on sending a magician out to assist. With merely two magicians at its disposal the obvious choice was Strange. It may seem, and indeed is, a little odd that Mr Norrell should have acquiesced quietly in the sending away of his only pupil; but in this matter he was adroitly out-manoeuvred by the guileful Drawlight and his associate Lascelles. Both these gentlemen had reason to resent Strange, because his influence over Mr Norrell was greater than their own. It was their dearest wish to see him sent away; and if he might be sent somewhere where there was a good chance he might have his head taken off by a cannonball as well, why, so much the better. Thus when they heard that a famous library which was confidently supposed to hold many rare magical books was due to come up for auction, they made it their business to insinuate to Mr Norrell that he might very likely find a rival bidder for its choicest volumes in Mr Strange. Mr Norrell's hunger for books of magic was the ruling passion of his heart. It dawned upon him - as Lascelles and Drawlight hoped it should - that the only way to secure all the bidding to himself was to have Mr Strange out of the way. Thus his opposition to sending his sole assistant into all the dangers of a military campaign melted like the morning dew. With his tutor's blessing to speed him on his way Mr Strange travelled to Lisbon and from there to the side of Lord Wellington.
It must be said that at first Lord Wellington was not best pleased to have a magician importuning him daily with demands to be useful and often gave Mr Strange a short answer (usually 'No.') In time however Mr Strange was able to prove his worth, initially in the matter of supplying good, passable roads for the Army, but later in more elaborate and recondite ways (see Raising the Dead.) As Lord Wellington grew to trust and esteem him he also, as was his habit, began to demand more and more of him. This forced Strange into a great deal of experimental magic he might not otherwise have attempted, and brought him on immeasurably. And as to changes in his character - suffering the rigours of a campaign in itself might be expected to alter a man considerably, but the additional influence of Lord Wellington was not wasted either. As well as returning home a much greater proficient in his chosen career, Mr Strange became more decisive, more self-reliant - and a little less scrupulous.
Campaign in Brussels
After Buonaparte's escape from exile and sudden return to Europe, the forces which had previously defeated and banished him nerved themselves for a further struggle. Britain despatched an army to Belgium under the command of Wellington, and Strange naturally followed to offer his help. He joined the Duke at Brussels, where His Grace coolly informed him that the allied forces were very ill-prepared, attack was imminent and it was therefore essential to display a calm and confident manner to preserve morale. Strange did his best, though he found the experience of being on the brink of battle and yet behaving as if on a visit to Weymouth a perturbing and confusing one. Since no-one had any idea of where Buonaparte would launch his attack from, Strange commenced his services by summoning up visions of various places where the French might reasonably be expected to appear. This occupied him for some two weeks and was remarkably tedious, until one afternoon, quite at random, he chose to inspect a little crossroads called Quatre Bras. There he saw the entire French army approaching very rapidly from an entirely unexpected direction. They were apparently about to march into Brussels unopposed! In the immediate alarm into which this threw Strange and his aide (young Hadley-Bright) their first thought was to safeguard the city, which Strange did by removing it abruptly into the American wilderness. From there, once the Duke was informed of the grim situation, Strange began to transmit Wellington's orders to gather forces at Quatre Bras in sufficient strength to delay the French approach. At six he returned Brussels to its former situation and when next morning the Allied regiments which had been quartered in the city marched out to aid their comrades already engaging the French, Strange went with them.
Positioning himself in a ditch before the farmhouse at Quatre Bras he at first was at some distance from the main action, and having no particular orders spent his time sending fanciful visions of angels and fiery dragons etc which he hoped might terrify the French. After some three or four hours of diligent work however he was sharply told by the Duke himself that his apparitions were rather hindering than helping, and he must find some other and more useful way to employ himself. Discovering from one of his Grace's aides that French reinforcements might be on the way, Strange removed to the nearby farmhouse, spread a map and began some intricate moving-about of features of the landscape in the hopes of confusing the approaching enemy. Naturally he had no idea at the time whether this too was an equally useless endeavour. (Those who have taken part in battles frequently remark that it is well nigh impossible to know what is going on until a good while afterwards, and then it is of no use.) In the event Strange's landscape-twiddling turned out to be "the most decisive action of the campaign", for it confused the approaching French reserve and delayed their arrival by hours, thus allowing the Allies to hold Quatre Bras. Had the French won there, the likelihood is that they would have rolled up the Allied armies before them and the Battle of Waterloo would never have been fought.
Sadly it was necessary that that dire conflict should take place, as it shortly did. Again Strange was of material use, both in helping save lives at the Chateau of Hougoumont, an allied outpost that came under severe and sustained attack; and at Waterloo proper, where after imprudently venturing outside the safety of a square he very nearly lost his life to a French cuirassier. Strange was only saved by a combination of magic and good fortune: he instinctively used Stokesey's Animam Evocare to halt the attack and then, while he inwardly debated the morality of destroying life directly by magical means, a passing Scots Grey solved the conundrum by sabring the immobilized Frenchman.
After the Allied victory at Waterloo Strange was again free to return to England, to his wife - and to studying under Mr Norrell. But warfare changes a man, and Mr Strange had reached a stage in his lfe when he could no longer bear tutelage. He and Mr Norrell quarrelled over the matter of the King's Roads - or of the Raven King - or really, about nothing and everything. They parted, not in any spirit of deep animosity - but they parted: Mr Norrell's time as master, and Strange's as pupil, was at an end. With nothing to detain him Strange then wound up his affairs in London and prepared to take himself and his wife back to their home, Ashfair.
Loss of Mrs. Strange
In December of 1815 the gentleman with the thistle-down hair, having conceived an improper passion for Mrs Strange, carried her off to live with him in Lost-hope. In order for him successfully to do this he had first to dupe her husband into believing she was dead. This, with the help of some moss-oak, he did.
It is natural that such a great and unforeseen blow would have its effect on the nature of Jonathan Strange. Few of us do not writhe under the agonies of loss: his friend Sir Walter Pole observed him closely during a meal they took together at the Bedford coffee-house some weeks later, and noticed changes he thought were not for the better - a certain wildness, a tendency to be less open and sympathetic. In fact during the time immediately following the presumed death of his wife Strange became increasingly morose and eccentric; but also, perhaps as a distraction from his grief, threw himself more than ever into his magical studies. He began a book*, laid plans for producing a monthly magazine and, moreover, took on three pupils - William Hadley-Bright, Tom Levy and the Hon. Henry Purfois. The restlessness which troubled him so at this time however meant that none of these projects came to much, for Strange soon decided to travel. The impulse was not solely the consequence of a troubled and a grieving heart desperate for distraction: it sprang too from a need to circumvent the restrictions Norrell had placed upon the exploration of magic by witholding access to his library. The King's Roads offered tantalizing new opportunities, but having told his late wife he would not venture upon them without her consent Strange felt it something of a sacred duty to keep faith with that promise; nevertheless, go somewhere he must. The cessation of war in Europe gave him his opportunity, and Swizzerland and Italy his destination.
*The History and Practice of English Magic
Holiday in Europe (esp. in Venice)
No-one who knew Strange's impulsive nature can be surprised that he handed over the manuscript of his new book to its publisher in early June, abruptly informed his friends it was his intention to travel, and was in Belgium by June 12th. From there he seems leisurely to have followed Lord Byron's route southwards, passing through Geneva (where he had the honour of making his lordship's acquaintance) and thence to Piacenza, Turin and Genoa. Genoa pleased him more than any place he had visited so far and he remained there a week. Now it happened that at his hotel was another English family, also travelling to see the sublime sights of Italy. Their name was Greysteel. Their company - and in particular the company of Miss Greysteel - delighted Strange so much that he altered his itinerary to fall in with their plans. The whole party left for Venice, arriving there in October of 1816 . It was in this fateful place that Strange at last succeeded in summoning the gentleman with the thistle-down hair into his presence. Little understanding then the nature of the creature he was dealing with, Strange took it upon himself to follow the Gentleman out of this world altogether and into his own wild domain of Lost-hope. In that dreadful stronghold Strange discoved the wife he believed he had lost - realised suddenly how he had been duped - was seen by the Gentleman - and catastrophe ensued! Roused to a pitch of desperate fury the fairy summoned all his powers and cast the awesome spell which was to imprison first Strange, and later Norrell, in the Pillar of Darkness.
Return to England
At first Strange had no thought at all of returning to England, or indeed of going anywhere except back to Lost-hope and the rescue of his wife. Gradually however he realized his own limitations. Alone, he could not defeat the Gentleman - not in his present state of imperfect magical knowledge. And so like a good general Strange came up with another plan. He calculated that to save his wife and vanquish the Gentleman he would need the help of the greatest magician of all time. He decided on nothing less than summoning the Raven King himself. Of course he was not fool enough to suppose he could do so unaided. The first prerequisite was to consult Norrell's great library at Hurtfew, that immense corpus of magical knowledge: and Strange was also not afraid to face the fact he needed the help of Norrell himself. Sinking all petty past resentments into the one great purpose of finding and rescuing his wife, Strange travelled by unknown ways* to return to England once more and confront his old tutor.
When he does so, and they finally meet, it a great surprise to Mr Norrell that Strange should be so affable - so little influenced by a just resentment of Norrell's past conduct. But there has never been that littleness in Strange that causes some men - his own father being a sad example - to hold bitter grudges. He no longer cares about past slights or injuries. He has a purpose in view and in achieving it a particular use to make of the only other powerful magician he knows. He enlists Mr Norrell's help and a new partnership begins between the two, one which is only the more confirmed by their realization that they are both of them now trapped in the Darkness. Together they attempt to attract the attention of John Uskglass and, very briefly, they do so. In the course of attempting to call upon his aid they accidentally concentrate the whole power of English magic into the hands of Stephen Black, just at the very moment when the latter realizes he must destroy the Gentleman in order to save Lady Pole from death. He does so: and as the Gentleman dies, Mrs Strange is freed. Strange has accomplished his greatest task.
*The Gentleman mentions seeing him upon the King's Roads. At one point Strange does of course also deviate to appear in Padua, where he has an important request to make of Miss Greysteel.
Unknown. Even having somehow rescued his wife, Strange is still unable to free himself from the inconvenience of the Eternal Darkness and its consequence: the decidedly mixed blessing of a perpetual, close proximity to Mr Norrell. He is above all a loving husband. He does not desire his wife should accompany him - wrenched again from the familiar world she has so recently been restored to - and share such a destiny. Whimsical as ever tho' he does not despair, but determines to make the best of his unusual fate. He has always been curious. Now, trapped within the Darkness but not confined in any other way, he takes a tender farewell of his wife, promising to return to her one day when he is free to do so, and leaves England to explore other worlds.
Mr Strange has a strong prejudice against Weymouth.
He is generally inclined to pay closer attention to the current of his own thoughts than to the conversation of those around him - even when the someone happens to be his wife.
He is somewhat subject to Premonitions, but his impetuous nature and perhaps his rationalist Scotch education impede his ability to take due warning from them.
Jonathan Strange had two residences: Ashfair, near Clun in Shropshire, and a house in Soho-square, London. In chapter 69, it says that Jeremy John's cat could still find the house, "slipping between number 30 and number 32," so presumably the Stranges' house was number 31.
Mr Strange is of above average height, slender, and has auburn hair, latterly streaked with gray.
The miniature portrait accompanying this article is claimed by some to be a likeness of him. We must bear in mind however that at points in his career Strange was lionized by that portion of society which constantly seeks sensation, and interests itself to an unhealthy extent in the intimate details of great men's lives. An unscrupulous artist might easily profit from the credulous enthusiasm of persons such as Miss Gray.