28 December 2008

Footnote in a Strange land

I am still chuckling with appreciation over Unreal Nature's gently barbed Christmas Eve gift of a "Thank you (foot) note". While Ms Heyward has me in her sights, I need never be blind to my own pomposities[1].

Through that post, I was delighted to discover three references to engrossing material about the footnote. Thinking onward from those, I pondered the footnote's move out of academia to become a postmodern component of fiction. Jasper Fforde's protagonist Thursday Next, when recruited as a "Jurisfiction" agent keeping law and order within published texts (Lost in a good book, et seq), learns several means of keeping in touch with her colleagues: one of which is the "footnoterphone" network. The book which this chain of thought sent me back to reread over the holiday break, however, was Susannah Clarke's wonderful Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. (JS&MN)

Clarke's use of footnotes is not, in the scale of things, huge. A quick and very approximate sampling of pages from JS&MN suggests a roughly 14:1 ratio between text and footnote – or, put another way, an average page carries roughly 340 words of text and 24 words of footnote. But the footnotes play a far more important part in the fiction than their weight implies.

JS&MN is, amongst many other things, an affectionate and playful commentary on both science and academicism; footnotes are central of this aspect. More important, though, is the rôle they fulfil in storytelling. Some of them are simple bibliographic attributions for (usually nonexistent) books such as "John Segundus ... Life of Jonathan Strange, pub. John Murray, London, 1829". Others provide a genuine factual aside such as "Merlin is generally assumed to have been imprisoned in a hawthorn by Nimue". Others again, though, tell whole subsidiary or complementary stories over several consecutive pages.

A brief reference to a legal precedent ("Tubbs versus Starhouse must stand as a warning to all magicians") on page 71 of my paperback copy and a conversational reference ("Look at Bloodworth") on page 73 trigger a pair of footnotes which, over four consecutive pages, tell stories of magicians, deceptions, fairies, abductions, supernatural domains, dissatisfied families, the Raven King, misunderstandings, coextensive geographies, malicious suits for inadvertent magical slander, and much more besides. (Click the thumbnail to the left of this paragraph for a view of page 73.)

What is already a disarmingly convincing reinvention of the Napoleonic wars acquires both substance and flavour from the detailed asides and anecdotes contained in its footnotes.

How to close this post is a puzzle which I feel too lazy to solve. Perhaps (in Growlery Green®) with Clarke's last footnote of all, which manages to sum up the inconclusive qualities of many (though not Clarke's) footnotes:

There are very few modern magicians who do not declare themselves to be either Strangite or Norrellite, the only notable exception being Childermass himself. Whenever he is asked he claims to be in some degree both. As this is like claiming to be both Whig and Tory at the same time, no one understands what he means. (JS&MN, 0747579881, p.1000, footnote 69:5)

Long live the footnote – and good humoured sniping at it.

  • Susannah Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. 2004, London: Bloomsbury. 0747570558 (hbk), 0747574111 or 0747579881(pbk).

  1. It's actually debatable, on a quiet and otherwise unoccupied evening around the fireside, whether footnotes to a web document deserve that name or should be called endnotes instead. Footnotes appear at the foot (unsurprisingly) of a page; endnotes at the end of a text. The question probably has no answer, since a web page entry usually has no pagination as such. Perhaps they are both. I personally see mine as neither, in most cases; since they are usually bibliographic references (though this one is an exception) ... but I digress and become boring.

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