• Nina Clare

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and other stories (2006) by Susanna Clarke

Updated: Jul 10

This is a collection of fairy tales with a goodly number of leading ladies. There are brave ladies, feisty ladies, mysterious, dangerous, clever, and magical ladies. And they need to be, for their stories are set between the 15th- and 19th-century, where all manner of fates might threaten women in the forms of forced marriage, abduction, and unpleasant husbands and fathers.

The fairies in these tales are not the sweet bottom-of-the-garden kind (actually, one is, but she’s definitely not sweet), they are tricksy, beguiling and dangerous. Some use charm and charisma, and some brute force. There are no little flower fairies, there are rapacious fairies, ugly baby sprites, egotistical and wicked beings. Plenty of wry humour softens the horror elements, but Faerie is a very dangerous place, and the paths into it are entered at one’s peril.

Johnathan Strange makes a welcome reappearance when he meets the three ladies of Grace Adieu. Good thing he behaves in a gentlemanlike manner, for woe betide any man who doesn’t when these surprising women are about. In Mrs Mabb, a young lady must outwit a fairy queen to rescue her lost love, and in The Duke of Wellington a great man’s destiny is compromised when he offends an innkeeper’s wife.

There’s an Austenesque Pride & Prejudice theme in Mr Simonelli : a young and pompous clergyman meets with a family of five unmarried daughters, and determines to marry one of them – a clergyman who has a right of inheritance over the family estate. But the titular character has come into a neighbourhood with some odd inhabitants, and is rightly worried to discern a strange family lineage to them – a lineage of ‘other blood’. If Mr Simonelli wants to have his pick of the five young ladies, he must protect them from a dreadful fate by outwitting a powerful fairy. And which of the sisters shall he choose for a wife? Well, perhaps he’ll just choose them all…

In Tom Brightwood there is a friendship between a six-foot charismatic fairy and a mortal Jewish doctor, and Mary Queen of Scots makes an appearance in Antickes & Frets, as she tries in vain to usurp the queen of England through embroidering curses. The final fairy tale features John Uskglass, the Raven King, another character from Strange & Norrell. The Raven King might be ‘the greatest magician that ever lived’, but even he comes unstuck when heavenly powers decide to teach him a lesson in humility in this comic tale, where the underdog gets some justice.

This is a word-perfect book of grown-up fairy tales, and, better still – a grown-up book with pictures! – with illustrations by Charles Vess.