Premonitions

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Premonitions - vague presentiments of future events - happen at several points in the book. For example, at Venice Jonathan Strange has a brief vision of his own future, though at the time he is unable to interpret it or even aware what it is [54]. It occurs while he is strolling in the company of the Greysteels: his mind is relaxed, his thoughts unoccupied, and he is open to impressions:

"Strange walked about. He was thinking of nothing in particular. The air was very cold - pleasantly so - and overhead the first star of evening appeared. He was aware of a peculiar scraping sound behind him and he turned to see what was making it."

"In the darkest corner of the little square something was standing - a thing the like of which he had never seen before. It was black - so black that it might have been composed of the surrounding darkness. Its head or top took the form of an old-fashioned sedan chair, such as one might occasionally see conveying a dowager about Bath. It had windows with black curtains that pulled across. But beneath the windows it dwindled into the body and legs of a great black bird. It wore a tall black hat and carried a thin, black walking-stick. It had no eyes yet Strange could tell it was looking at him." [54]

The vision reeks "of anger and malevolence", yet Strange intuitively knows it is not a present danger but "a sign of evil-yet-to-come" [54]. In fact the extraordinary 'vision' swiftly resolves itself into the figure of Dr Greysteel, idly scraping his walking-stick across the stones of the square; nevertheless, Strange is here clearly experiencing a premonition of his future incarceration in the Pillar of Darkness. The "sedan chair" represents both confinement and mobility; the birdlike shape of the lower limbs suggests perhaps that John Uskglass and his magic are implicated in Strange's fate; the anger and malevolence he senses emanating from the vision are precisely the feelings that move the gentleman with the thistle-down hair to attack him.

At the time when he sees his vision Strange has already prepared the tincture of madness and consumed several doses of varying strengths with the express intention of altering his perceptions. Naturally at the time he, perhaps rightly, ascribes the 'apparition' to the lingering effects of this drug. Unfortunately, precisely because that is its origin he makes the very human error of dismissing it. He does not reflect upon what he has seen or attempt to attach any meaning to it at all. He treats it not as an omen but as a mere bout of unreason - forgetting that unreason, in a human being, is the state of mind closest to that of fairies, and that fairies in general have a very pretty knowledge of the future (though according to the gentleman with the thistle-down hair it is an imperfect one) [30].

Arguably however this is not the first such premonition Strange experiences. In a letter to Sir Walter Pole (dated October 16th 1816) he mentions a trivial incident in on his first arrival in Venice when he is separated from his friends. The Greysteels accidentally embark in a gondola without him, leaving him to follow alone:

"I looked at my gondola. Much has been said, I know, about the funereal appearance of these contraptions...But I was struck by quite another idea. I thought how much they resembled the black-painted, black-curtained conjuring boxes of my childhood...all the nursemaids and kitchenmaids I ever knew when I was a child, always had an aunt, who knew a woman, whose first cousin's boy had been put into just such a box, and never been seen again.[51]"

A little later in the same letter he refers to seeing, among the flotsam floating upon the dirty water of the canals, a white glove. This he mistakenly interprets for a moment or so as "a ghostly hand", and it gives him the alarming impression that there is a woman beneath the water "trying to find her way back to the light". Writing to his friend, Strange makes light of these presentiments as merely the qualms of disordered nerves: but that on his very first arrival in the place where he is destined both be imprisoned in the Eternal Darkness and discover the plight of his trapped wife he should have both a sudden terror of separation and a vision of a woman reaching out to him from the darkness beneath, is surely a little more than coincidence[51].

And even before this, when he is only recently arrived in Italy and is in Piacenza, he is so struck with melancholy by a stone urn he catches sight of - "a tall urn standing upon its pedestal with its long, black shadow trailing upon the stones...Two or three strands of ivy or some other creeping plant emerged from the neck of the urn but they were quite dead...It was like an allegory of loss, death and misery[50]" - that he leaves the city almost at once.

Strange also experiments with a spell to foretell future events before the Battle of Waterloo, Martin Pale's Conjectures Concerning the Foreshadowing of Things To Come: but the result sickens him and it has no practical use[40].

Gilbert Norrell belatedly also appears to have a premonition of his own fate, though not an actual vision. It occurs when, while stopping at an inn on his way north to confront Strange, he glimpses in a mirror the bed in the same chamber. Described as "funereal", it is large, square, dark and topped with black plumes. Its effect on Mr Norrell is great:

"It was as if someone had brought him into the room and shewn him his own tomb. He began to have the strangest feeling - the same feeling he had had at the tollgate, watching the three women - the feeling that something was coming to an end and that all his choices had now been made...In the half-dark, standing by the black bed, he remembered why he had always feared the darkness as a child: the darkness belonged to John Uskglass."

The scene ends with Mr Norrell quite untypically scurrying out of the room to seek the warmth of human society, for the first and perhaps also the last time [63].

John Segundus also experiences a vision foretelling his future when he first sees Mrs Lennox at Starecross Hall - or rather, fails to see her. Instead, when he turns into the room where Mrs Lennox is sitting he has a glimpse of a "a lovely young woman...gazing out at the trees and the high, bare hills beyond. He had just enough time to notice that her left hand lacked a little finger, when suddenly she was not there at all..[41]". What Mr. Segundus is of course seeing is a scene from his own near future, when, thanks to Mrs Lennox's patronage, he will be guardian and companion to Lady Pole in that very house.

Christopher Drawlight experiences a dreadful premonition of his own unhappy fate when he is with Strange in Venice. At a moment when, by some magical process on the part of Strange, Drawlight's mind is opened to a sense of the supernatural influences which surround him, he has a momentary vision of his own death and dissolution[59].

Fairies, as one might expect, are better equipped by their nature to make sense of these premonitions. Although, as mentioned above, the gentleman with the thistle-down hair himself admits that fairy knowledge of the future is imprecise, it is not a faculty they ever ignore - on the contary, they do everything to enhance it. For example, having suspected that Stephen Black has a great destiny in store, The Gentleman brings into play such outlandish aids to prophecy as haruspicy to discover what that destiny may be: "Out of my dear love for you, Stephen, I have traced the smoke of burning cities and battlefields and prised dripping, bloody guts out of dying men to discover your future.[30]"

The fairy lady who speaks so brusquely to Jonathan Strange when he dances with her at Lost-hope seems to be mistress of everything concerning his incipient fate. From his first appearance there she "regards him steadily"; on his introducing himself she recites the lines from the Prophecy of John Uskglass which concern him; lastly she tells him that they will not meet again for a hundred years, indicating she knows he will shortly be imprisoned in the Pillar of Darkness for that period[55].