Bells

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Bells.jpg

An ancient bell
An association between the sound of bells and acts of magic is universally recognized.

For example, in Chapter 3 our author describes the uneasy feelings of the Learned Society of York Magicians who hear the church bells of St-Michael-le-Belfrey tolling the hour as the Society's members stand in expectation of Gilbert Norrell's first act of magic:

"The gentlemen of the York society knew very well how bells often went with magic and in particular with the magic of those unearthly beings fairies; they knew how, in the old days, silvery bells would often sound just as some Englishman or Englishwoman of particular virtue or beauty was about to be stolen away by fairies...[3]"

Indeed bells are later very much associated with the successful stealing away of Mrs Strange into Faerie. When Mr Hyde calls at Ashfair to give Jonathan Strange an account of his odd experience while crossing The Dyke (during which he sees what he believes to be Mrs Strange walking unconcernedly through a blizzard of snow) he adds that just before he sees her he hears a mysterious bell toll - though he knows no bell could be ringing in such a lonely place. Strange, who as is his habit is not giving his full attention to the person with whom he is conversing, at once launches into a speech describing "the magical significance of bells: how bells were used as a protection against fairies and other evil spirits and how a bad fairy might sometimes be frightened away by the sound of a church bell. And yet, at the same time, it was well known that fairies loved bells; fairy magic was often accompanied by the tolling of a bell; and bells often sounded when fairies appeared[43]."

Mr. Hyde does not attach much significance to this speech. But later, closer to the time of her disappearance, he again sees what he believes to Mrs Strange walking alone and unprotected on a stretch of lonely hillside and " just as before, he had heard bells ringing". The same sound accompanies the last reported sight of Arabella, when two labourers watch her hurrying through dark trees some five miles from where Mr Hyde sees her. One of the men is under the strong impression they saw her at nine o'clock, because they hear bells ringing and he naturally assumes a nearby church clock is striking the hour. His friend disagrees, arguing that the bells they heard were not at all like those of a clock but "sad bells"[43]. We can assume that what both Mr Hyde and the labourers hear is the sound of fairy bells accompanying the magic which draws Mrs. Strange away from her home and into captivity in Lost-hope.

A bell is heard as Mr. Norrell raises Miss Wintertowne from the dead, as Christopher Drawlight remarks:

"That was the clock striking half-past one o'clock!" said Drawlight suddenly. "How lonely it sounds! Ugh! All the horrid things one reads of in novels always happen just as the church bell tolls or the clock strikes some hour or other in a dark house![8]"

During her long enslavement to fairy magic in Lost-hope Lady Pole understandably develops an aversion to the sound of bells, though she cannot give a true reason for it; her husband Sir Walter explains matters, as best he understands them, to Arabella Strange:

"Lady Pole's illness has left her nerves in a sad condition. The tolling of a bell is peculiarly distressing to her and I have asked the vestries of St Mary-le-bone and St Peter if they would, out of consideration for Lady Pole's nerves, forbear from ringing the church bells, and they have been so obliging as to agree[27]."

Yet for all he says, later that same day Mrs Strange is startled to hear a bell which "sounded very sad and far away" begin to toll as she waits for her husband to conclude his business with Sir Walter Pole at his home. The sound causes her to become unsteady and to feel herself lost in an alien and forbidding landscape - in short, almost to faint, a weakness unusual with her. It is possible that the sound of a single, sad bell tolling is one of the indicators that the barrier between normal English reality and the world of Faerie is growing thin. When Childermass is shot by Lady Pole, the attempt on his life comes at the end of a sequence of visions he experiences, all of which indicate he is at some crossing point between Faerie and reality; and these visions commence with the sound of a bell. "Somewhere a bell was tolling, a mournful sound. It was very far away.[46]"

It is also the sound of a bell - a humble bell in the servants' hall - which first brings Stephen Black into contact with the gentleman with the thistle-down hair. It is when he goes to answer it that he finds himself in Lost-hope[16]. Later still, Stephen is summoned away from Mrs Brandy's comfortable parlour into the enchanted world of the gentleman with the thistle-down hair when he hears a mournful bell that is inaudible to others:

"He raised his head suddenly. 'Do you hear that?' he asked.
'What, Mr. Black?'
'That bell. Tolling for the dead.'
She listened for a moment. 'No. I do not hear anything...
[17]"

Lastly, when Mr. Strange and Mr. Norrell do finally succeed in attracting John Uskglass's attention and perhaps even cause him briefly to honour them with his presence "A bell - taken from the original Abbey long ago and since forgotten - rang frantically in a little turret above the stables.[68]"