Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal
With modern life being so darned complicated, it’s no surprise that many of us are looking for a literary escape in the quaint escapades of the heroines of Jane Austin, who wrote so graciously about life and love in Regency England. But as a lover of historical fantasy, I’d like to also recommend Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey. Ms. Kowal takes Austen’s sensibility of Restoration England and adds a fun twist: along with
embroidery, music and the painting of fine china, young ladies in Kowal’s gentry would also have at least a rudimentary knowledge of “glamour”: the ability to “reach into the ether” to magically manipulate shape, light and color, sound and sensation, in order to create panoramas, tableaus, and other genteel decorations.
Jane Ellsworth is the central hero in Shades of Milk and Honey, and her glamourist abilities are considerable, even though her physical attributes are quite modest. She has a lovely yet vain younger sister, Melody, who is not content unless every available bachelor in the vicinity is besotted with her. Never mind that this also snares any man who may have an appreciation of her older sister’s accomplishments; Jane has pretty much resigned herself to a life of spinsterhood.
When dark and moody glamour artiste Mr. Vincent arrives on the scene, Jane’s life is thrown into turmoil. Eager to learn some of his considerable technique, she is not only rebuffed but the mysterious fellow appears to be piqued at her well-meant interest. Yet his talent draws her like a moth to the flame and she internalizes his rebukes with well bred angst.
The story gets further tangled when Jane befriends the young ward of a neighbor; the girl is strangely skittish and withdrawn but finds comfort in a friendship with the older Jane, whose trusting nature cannot see that dark secrets lurk suspiciously in the young girl’s background. Meanwhile, vivacious Melody finds herself drawn to a wealthy landowner’s military nephew, but is there any future in vying for his attention as her family comes from a far more modest status? And will that matter when a girl is fair of face and form? Add to this milieu mysterious histories, gossiping neighbors, hilarious hypochondriacs, romantic entanglements, and mixed messages that thoroughly miss the mark, and you have classic Regency lit.
Of course, we can see where the story is going. We know exactly who has ulterior motives and who will fall prey to them, and we know that everything will work out well at the end – that’s not the point. The point is sitting back and enjoying the pretty pictures that swirl around us as the characters move toward the inevitable conclusion – and under Ms. Kowal’s considerable talent, the view is indeed engaging. She is as deft at creating character, atmosphere and a gracious story as her heroine Jane is at creating decor and tableau with her glamour. They both pull lovely things out of thin air.
The drawing room already had a simple theme of palm trees and egrets designed to complement its Egyptian revival furniture. For the better part of an hour, Jane and Melody twisted and pulled folds of glamour out of the ether. Some of the older threads of glamour in the palm trees had become frayed, making the images lose their resolution. In other places, Jane added more depth to the illusion by creating a breeze to ruffle the fronds of the glamour. Though her breath came quickly and she felt light-headed with the effort of placing so many folds, the effect was well worth such a trifling strain.
Placed in pairs in the corners of the room, the trees seemed to brush the coffered ceiling, accenting its height with their graceful forms. Between each tree, an egret posed in a pool of glamour, waiting an eternity for the copper fish hinted at below its reflection. Simpler folds brought the warm glow of an Egyptian sunset to the room, and the subtle scent of honeysuckle kissed the breeze.
Isn’t that wonderfully evocative? Glamour (think “magic”) plays such a large part in Jane’s world, and yet is seamlessly integrated into the very fabric of the characters’ lives. It is not only used to enhance artwork and heighten decorations, but to create illusions of other kinds, as well. For instance, a substantial amount can be utilized to make a shabby house appear prosperous, or a more focused application can be used as a tool to allow a tailor to envision a gown exactly to a client’s satisfaction, allowing for agreement on a design before a single stitch is made. Glamour can even be used to alter a less than attractive physical attribute of a young lady who might be willing to sidestep questions of ethics in order to catch the eye of a prosperous young bachelor.
As the action of the story moves to its final dramatic climax, the use of glamour plays a large part in the overwrought confrontations that bring all the conflicting storylines to a head. And in picture perfect Regency fashion, Ms. Kowal deftly tidies up all the loose ends, leaving the end of the book as lovely as the pastoral tableaus that the glamourists of the story weave.
Shades of Milk and Honey achieves a gracefulness that can be a breath of fresh air, especially for a reader who appreciates how maintaining beauty in simplicity can take as much skill as penning monolithic epics. Ultimately, this novel may seem light lighter fare, but that in itself is part of its graceful illusion. It is eminently satisfying, and well worth a few afternoons lost to such gracious fancy.
And if you enjoy Shades of Milk and Honey, there are four more Glamourist Histories novels that further the story of our illustrious Jane, each its own delight. Indeed, a balm to the soul.