Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke and illustrated by Charles Vess

I started the R.I.P. Challenge II aiming to read just one book. It’s now nearly the end of the challenge and I have exceeded my target. I have read Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott, several short stories from Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, from the Great Ghost Stories collection published by the Chancellor Press and today I finished reading The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke. I’m glad I took this challenge as it has made me read Poe’s Tales after years of wondering what they are like, but I am a little disappointed that they are not as spooky as I imagined them to be and I don’t like the gory elements and Poe’s fascination with premature burials. I’m probably in a minority on this.

Ghostwalk was to my mind a much more satisfying read and I’m pleased that The Ladies of Grace and Adieu was as fantastical as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (also by Susanna Clarke), which I read about two years ago. I was entranced by Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which is set in a parallel nineteenth century England and tells the story of two magicians, full of mystery, magic, fantasy and faerie tales and The Ladies, although much shorter, is another book full of fantasy stories.

As a child I read all the fairytale books I could find and The Ladies collection takes me back to the magical world of those stories. They are full of deep dark woods, paths leading to houses that seemingly move locations, ladies who are never what they appear to be, princesses, owls, and above all fairies, including the Raven King.

The stories are all captivating and strange and set up echoes in my mind of such fairytales, as Rumpelstiltskin (in On Lickerish Hill). My favourite stories are The Ladies of Grace Adieu, Mrs Mabb, and The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse. The Ladies explains why Jonathan Strange prevented his clergyman brother-in-law from an engagement with Cassandra Parbringer as Strange discovers that his magic is no match for Cassandra and her two friends, the three bewitching ladies of Grace Adieu.

Mrs Mabb is a fascinating story in which the heroine, Venetia Moore contends with the mysterious Mrs Mabb who has stolen away Venetia’s fiancé. Whichever path she takes to get to Mrs Mabb’s house she cannot find it, although she catches sight of the house and wonders at the smallness of it. She is surprised to realise that she remembers little of what has happened to her after she is found in a state of confusion, with her clothes in tatters. On another occasion after trying to get to the house she dances all night until her feet are bleeding, and finally she is attacked by what seems to be a great crowd of people with glittering swords. This reminded me of a book my mother used to have full of strange and wonderful stories and poems, one of which was about Queen Mab. I wish I still had that book. I have tried to find what the poem could be – as I remember it, Queen Mab was a fairy queen, full of malice and mischief, who turned out to be not what she seems. I think the poem I read must have been from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in Mercutio’s speech in Act 1 scene iv:

O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep;
Her wagon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs,
The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,
The traces of the smallest spider’s web,
The collars of the moonshine’s watery beams,
Her whip of cricket’s bone, the lash of film,
Her wagoner a small grey-coated gnat,
Not so big as a round little worm
Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid;
Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,

Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.

The story I enjoyed the most was The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse. I have not read any of Neil Gaiman’s books, but I think I really should. The story of the Duke’s horse is set in Wall, a village in the world created by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess, where there is an actual wall dividing our world and the world of Faerie, guarded by burly villagers with cudgels. The proud Duke, the Nation’s Hero, passes unchallenged by the intimidated villagers into Faerie, in pursuit of his horse. His fate is then seemingly set in stitches in a magnificent piece of embroidery in exquisite pictures. I wonder if the creator of Heroes has read this story – there are similarities with the painter, Isaac, who has the ability to paint the future? The Duke’s fate depends on whether he can alter the future shown in the embroidery. The ending has a satisfying twist.

I have enjoyed this Challenge and although it ends on 31 October I shall carry on reading “R.I.P.” books. I have Susan Hill’s The Man in the Picture and Raold Dahl’s Completely Unexpected Tales waiting in line.


6 thoughts on “Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke and illustrated by Charles Vess

  1. I have Ghostwalk here at home and will get to it at some point. The Ladies of Grace Adieu sounds quite interesting even though I am not a short story fan usually. I keep meaning to read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Sigh. Too many books. Thanks for the reviews.


  2. Kay, I don’t usually find short stories very satisfying. I think that’s my problem with the Poe Tales. The stories in the Ladies of Grace Adieu are longer and the characters are a bit more developed. I enjoyed them more than I thought I would. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is at the opposite scale – it is so, so long and detailed. It took me ages to read it.Yes, there are far too many books and not enough time to read them all.


  3. Do read Gaiman’s Stardust – the original story about Wall. Neverwhere is full of wonderful characters and set in a London we don’t see. American Gods and its sequel Anansi Boys feel more like American novels, but I’d wholeheartedly recommend them.Ladies of Grace Adieu and Gaiman’s Fragile Things are on my TBR pile – thought I’d have a story from each for Hallowe’en.


  4. I loved ‘Ghostwalk’ but didn’t get on at all with ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’. Perhaps I should try the ‘Ladies of Grace Adieu’ and see if I have any greater success. I also have problems with the Poe tales, but used to read them with my first-year Under-grads because they made the point I need to make. I have to say I haven’t missed them this first autumn of retirement.


  5. I really do want to read Susanna Clarke–both books. I also have Ghostwalk on my list. I read a few ghost stories as well, but I really didn’t find them scary, though several were very creepy. I wonder if it is just the times we live in? Or maybe being an adult? I haven’t been scared by anything I’ve read in a very long time. And I am still working on trying to finish my lone book for the challenge.


  6. Ironic, really, that Strange & Norrell was the book I talked about in last week’s BTT about Abandonded books. I realy couldn’t stand that book (grin).


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