Faerie is never as far away as you think. Sometimes you find you have crossed an invisible line and must cope, as best you can, with petulant princesses, vengeful owls, ladies who pass their time embroidering terrible fates or with endless paths in deep, dark woods and houses that never appear the same way twice. The heroines and heroes bedevilled by such problems in these fairy tales include a conceited Regency clergyman, an eighteenth-century Jewish doctor and Mary, Queen of Scots, as well as two characters from "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: Strange himself and the Raven King".
Over on my author's blog I have just written a post about the impact of Alan Garner's Weirdstone of Brisingamen had on me in my youth. Garner used the folktales of the British Isles as a source material for his novels. In addition to Garner I was addicted to reading the folk and fairytales from Britain themselves, so I came to Susanna Clarke's collection of short stories with a knowledge of their background. It meant that I enjoyed the tales in the book, but it also meant that I did not find the stories as original as perhaps other readers would and was able to see their endings where others might not. What is original is the way Clarke presents this world where the faerie lives alongside a realistic England in the early nineteenth century. The only other writer I can think of who has achieved something similar is Neil Gaiman in his story Stardust (which is referenced in Clarke's story "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse"). Clarke's writing voice is Austenesque (whilst not feeling over-forced) which adds to that impact of her magic realism.
One of the elements in the book that appealed to me was the role of women as magic makers and the sustainers of the old magical traditions, such as the ladies in the book's title who are defending the old magic in the face of male prejudice. But the stories aren't heavy-handed about it. It does seem to me that Clarke gets the blend of comical and sinister just right.
Inevitably there are some stories which I preferred to others in the book: The Ladies of Grace Adieu, Mr Simonelli or the Fairy Widower and Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby. But my choice reflects my bias and I have read other reviews which have different favourites. I would recommend taking breaks between stories to savouring them, as I found they rewarded reflection.
I have not yet read Clarke's long (1000+ paged) novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell which is set in the same world, and I confess with my Magic Realism challenge requiring me to read and review on book a week I am not going to do so this year. But on the basis of these stories I intend to some day soon.