Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey is the first book in her Glamourist Histories series, a set of novels which answer the surely proverbial question – what kind of stories would Jane Austen have produced if she had written fantasy novels? This opening novel should delight any fans of Austen, with threads of Austen’s prose style colouring the way Kowal’s narrative unfolds, and characters that nod to infamous figures in the likes of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. In Kowal’s hands Regency England becomes a fantastical and magical world which is somehow believable, a testament, surely, to the care with which she integrates the magic system the story is so dependent upon into the established conventions of a Regency romance narrative.
“One must not put trust in novelists, Beth; they create worlds to fit their own needs and drive their characters mad in doing it”
Set in Dorchester, Dorset in 1814, Shades of Milk and Honey opens as a romance heavily inspired by the Regency England depicted in Jane Austen’s novels… with one key difference – the existence of the art of glamour. Just as a proper young lady is expected to paint, play piano, dance, read, have impeccable table manners and so on and so forth, the manipulation of glamour is particularly essential to those ladies of quality. Jane Ellsworth is one such accomplished lady – it is just a shame she is practically a spinster at age twenty-eight and isn’t quite as fair or charming as her younger sister Melody, the more emotional and impulsive of the pair whose own brush with romance draws the Ellsworth family into a tale filled with plenty of balls, eligible gentlemen, and afternoon tea.
“The Ellsworth of Long Parkmead had the regard of their neighbours in every respect” – so begins the novel, in a very Austen-esque fashion that immediately piqued my interest. From the very outset the narrative seemed something comfortable and comforting, as I felt a vague sense of familiarity despite having never ‘met’ the characters in previous novels. Part of this familiarity is due to the Austen influence, it seems familiar territory to begin a narrative describing the reputation and standing of a noble family amongst their neighbourhood and in society at large. As a reader you are immediately focalised into the world of pure white dresses and coming-out balls and paying calls to neighbours to enjoy a spot of tea and very polite gossiping.
“When Jane let her vision shift to the ether, so that the corporal room faded from her view, the lingering remnants of glamour were far too bulky for the effect that Melody had been trying to attain. Jane took the folds between her fingers and thinned them to a gossamer weight that she could barely feet. When she stretched them out, they spanned the corner in a fine web.”
It is, however, a world with one crucial difference – magic. Kowal creates a magic system focused intriguingly on the idea of illusions, called “glamour”, but the true skill in the story is in her description of them as akin to weaving or sewing. In presenting the magic in such a way, Kowal helps to blend the manipulation of glamour believably into the other “feminine” arts expected of young ladies – painting, playing the pianoforte, embroidery and so on – and so glamour becomes simply another pastime that a young lady would seek to master, another feather to her bonnet of eligibility, and able to be taught through the application of a tutor in the art. Enter perhaps the most intriguing and unexpected element of this novel – a consideration of masculine vs. feminine spheres in the Regency and, potentially, feminist undertones explored through the characters of Mr Vincent and Jane Ellsworth.
Such an element was teased well enough in this first novel but it is one I hope to see explored in more depth in subsequent novels in the series. For, just as we might see a derisive attitude of the period towards “women’s books” as opposed to “men’s books” and superiority given, naturally, to the latter, glamour receives a similar treatment. Mr Vincent is the enigmatic and famed glamourist whose skill in manipulation of the ether into elaborate illusions and spectacles is celebrated and employed by well-to-do families to illustrate their higher cultural appreciation. Meanwhile, the works of female glamourists, such as Jane, are treated rather as novelties, as mere drawing room tricks, rather than as widely appreciated art. Jane’s desire to understand, and unpick, the process behind Mr Vincent’s own method of glamour causes a point of contention between the pair (with him displaying a magician’s sense of distaste towards anyone asking how an illusion was performed) but it is through their discussions of glamour, and their joint efforts in creating tableau vivant that the novel, and its unique magic system, really sings.
” ‘Again, I apologize. It is clear that you have put serious effort into the art. I should have spoken with you as if you were another glamourist instead of a lady using it as an idle means to make the time pass.’
Jane shook her head, vexed that he had described her exactly. Had she been doing anything in this maze other than seeking to pass the time? ‘Mr Vincent, I am, in fact, a country lady who uses glamour as a means to pass the time. You mistake me if you think me anything more.’ “
Likewise, the reaching of a point of mutual respect between the pair of glamourists echoes one of the most compelling aspects of Regency romances – the meeting of like minds, as seen in the likes of the infamous Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. The trajectory from initial prejudice, through miscommunication and misunderstanding, to finally mutual respect and understanding is as compelling in Shades of Milk and Honey as it is in Pride and Prejudice.
In truth this sense of vague familiarity with the scenarios and plot trajectories might put some readers off the novel entirely – for myself it was a comforting and fun experience to read Shades of Milk and Honey precisely because I could see hints of my favourite Austen novels within the Regency world Mary Robinette Kowal imagines. So, true enough, Jane might seem like an odd mix of Elizabeth Bennet and Elinor Dashwood, her sister Melody reminiscent of Marianne Dashwood and (occasionally) reckless like Lydia Bennet, the novel’s love triangles similar to those in Sense and Sensibility and Emma… but, for my money, I enjoyed that. Essentially, I can’t complain because what I got was what was advertised – a Jane Austen smörgåsbord with a side-order of magic and illusions. The only frustrating element of Shades of Milk and Honey was that it was a little too short for my own liking – but that is easily resolved when one remembers that there are plenty more books in the Glamourist Histories series.
Overall, I would highly recommend the novel to any Jane Austen-ites who enjoy a light smattering of fantasy in their stories, anyone who has ever thought ‘well these fancy balls and horseback chases and secret affairs and pistols are all very well and good, but why not add magic?’ Why not, indeed.
” ‘What does it matter?’ Melody threw herself on the sofa. ‘I have no hopes of catching a husband. I am so abominably poor at all of the arts.’
Jane could not help herself. She laughed at her sister. ‘You have nothing to fear. Had I half your beauty I would have more beaux than the largest dowry could settle upon me.’ “
As if I haven’t stressed the Austen connection enough, I highly recommend listening to the soundtrack of one of the many Austen adaptations alongside your reading of Shades of Milk and Honey– personal favourites of mine are the 2005 Pride and Prejudice film soundtrack, the 1995 Sense and Sensibility film soundtrack, and the 2009 Emma miniseries soundtrack.