Noah Gordon, novelist whose books ranged from Jonathan Strange to a roving pirate, dies at 95

Noah Gordon, the American novelist whose great books included the pirate hero Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and the pirate with a tendency to drink, has died, his publisher says. He was 95.

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The Rolling Stone magazine named him “the best man of the year” in 2005 and awarded him its 2015 “living legend” award.

“Noah Gordon’s work is of tremendous importance to the field of 19th-century literary history, and with that is brought immense international recognition,” John Cox, the director of the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford University, said on Thursday. “The Bodleian libraries are proud to possess so many of his books.”

Gordon grew up on the Mermaid Isle in the Bristol Channel and joined the RAF in 1944, becoming a captain in the 2nd Bomber Command.

His first major success came in 1973, with a novel about a Chetham’s School of Music undergraduate, The Longest Drop, set in India during the second world war.

The well-received BBC television series of the novel won cult status in the UK, prompting an increasing interest in the novel and its author.

Gordon went on to write 24 books of fiction in his career, many of them featuring Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a pair of magical characters that Gordon created with a set of letters he wrote in the 1950s to a companion called Mr Norrell. The pair travel across the English Channel to settle in a cursed Norfolk estate owned by Lord Horace Norrell.

The New York Times reviewer of a 2008 edition of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell called Gordon “one of our most important 19th-century novelists”, adding: “Noah Gordon, the creative mind behind the classic novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, did not get the attention his talent merited for decades.

“That was largely because of the eccentricity and eccentricity of his own character, Mr Strange himself. But Mr Gordon ultimately caught up with his reputation.”

Gordon always maintained that Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell were based on an obscure character called Pansy. The character was passed around friends and associates without anyone ever deciding he was in fact someone with real power.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (A Discovery of Witches), the first novel featuring Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, sold more than 12m copies and was made into a miniseries starring David Bradley.

Gordon and his literary executor, the eponymous Jonathan Strange, wrote over 1,000 letters to each other over the course of the epic journey.

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Gordon spoke about the character during a 2004 lecture at the Oxford Centre for the Study of the Present.

“The reason I’m doing this is because I have done the most bizarre thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. “Writing Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, I was the only man who could do that … So it’s very bizarre.”

His experience writing for BBC television for four years would result in more popular success.

Gordon joined the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford in 1981 and continued to write until earlier this year. He also donated a personal collection of manuscripts and art to the library, the Bodleian added.

Gordon and his wife Sarah are survived by their son Nigel.

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