Let me say this: I utterly enjoyed Mary Robinette Kowal’s second novel in her Glamourist Histories series, Glamour in Glass, with its early 1800s historical intrigue and cultural exploratives, but after the initial Shades of Milk and Honey, I was left with one big question that (understandably) was not addressed in the second book: what of Melody?
Those who have read Shades of Milk and Honey will remember that poor Melody, Jane’s beautiful younger sister, was left at the end of the book with the devastating knowledge that the man she loved (and whom she thought loved her back) was actually a two-timing, trifling, mercenary scoundrel. Still pining away at Long Parkmead while Jane and Vincent consorted with royalty and then went gallivanting off to Belgium, (I would say more but I don’t want to give away anything to those who have yet to read Glamour in Glass), Melody’s fate remained somewhat in stasis, or at least without further advancement.
Luckily for readers who have followed the exploits of the celebrated glamourist couple, Vincent and Jane – now Sir David and Lady Vincent, due to Vincent’s knighthood received for service to the Crown (again, you must read Glamour in Glass if you have not yet had the chance!) – have returned to England and have settled back into more or less normal married life. Yet this summer is bound to be a far cry from “normal”…
OK, wait… let me back up with some needed exposition. The Ellsworths are a well established family abiding at their estate, Long Parkmead, in Dorchester, England. Along with gentlemanly Mr. Ellsworth and his hypochondriac wife are two daughters. Jane, the elder, is achingly plain but very talented, especially in the art of glamour (“glamour” being 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). Younger daughter Melody is beautiful and a bit vain; what she has been given in a lovely countenance is balanced by a more modest ability in the womanly arts – able, but not gifted, like Jane.
Although men flock to Melody like moths to flame, it is Jane who catches the eye of the mysterious glamour artiste, Mr. Vincent. After a rocky start, they fall in love and are married, and now work together creating great works of art; their partnership is strong yet an anomaly in Regency England, when women were not considered equals to their husbands. Vincent is the renegade third son of the powerful Count of Verbury, Lord Frederick Hamilton. Having been disowned by his father for refusing to give up the “womanly” art of glamour, he now eschews not only his family but also their name and title, assuming instead the name of David Vincent.
All right – back to Without a Summer. Now well established, (especially due to their relationship with the Prince Regent), Jane and Vincent are free to travel, taking commissions and exploring new theories and techniques in glamour. But during a recent visit to Long Parkmead, they can’t help but notice how forlorn Melody has become. Not only had she have to overcome the heartbreak (and embarrassment) of the defection of her furtive fiancé, but due to the enlistment of many able bodied young Englishmen in the fight against Napoleon, (many of whom, sadly, did not return), there is a dearth of eligible bachelors in the area, and Melody is blue with boredom and a lack of prospects.
Therefore, when a lucrative commission lures the Vincents to London, they invite Melody along so she can partake in the “social season,” full of balls and fetes and excursions meant to introduce well bred young ladies to eligible young men, with the hopes of making a good match. But although Without a Summer is full of the best of typical Regency literature – fashion and finery, flirting and gallantry, accompanied by dancing and long walks along the verge, with velvet and ribbons and yards and yards of muslin and silk – it is oh, so much more.
In 1816, our “real world” Europe experienced a “year without summer.” Although spring progressed normally, temperatures often fell alarmingly throughout the summer; worse yet, the sky was constantly grey and overcast. The affect on agriculture and food production was devastating; crops failed to grow and harvests were never realized. England was already struggling to rebound from the effects of the Napoleonic wars; now they had to deal with the added complications of food shortages as well as changes brought on by a burgeoning industrial revolution, leading to social unrest born from hunger and fear for the future.
It is into this milieu that Mary Robinette Kowal places the events of Without a Summer. While the Vincents work at the home of the wealthy Baron of Stratton, London life swirls around them, from demonstrations in the streets to society balls, from social visits (both welcome and unwelcome) to shopping jaunts to political unrest in the news and the marketplace. There is even a grand skating party thrown by the Prince Regent in a cavalier effort to use the winter-like weather to its best advantage, an event that has Melody absolutely delirious with joy although she has never been skating in her life. But woven into this expected story comes a twist, tinged with magical aspects.
Coldmongers are specialized workers who possess the ability (akin to glamour) allowing them to slightly lower the temperature of objects; in effect, casting a chilling spell. Virtually every country estate or aristocratic house has at least one coldmonger on staff, and their guild in London hires out workers on an as-needed basis. But due to the frigid weather, staff coldmongers are being released from their positions at an alarming rate and no work is coming in to the guild. On top of that hardship, unknown political forces are using the unseasonable weather to stir up resentment against the coldmongers, by spreading false information blaming them for the lingering winter with its ensuing food shortages.
It is not long before the Vincents (and Melody) are caught up in the social upheavals of the times. Not only are they sympathetic to the plight of the coldmongers, which on occasion places them in danger, but they also find themselves enmeshed in political manipulations that prey on public fears, through what appears to be multiple conspiracies mounted not only by acquaintances but also apparently orchestrated by Vincent’s estranged father in a bid for political advancement. As the situation comes to a head, Jane discovers that actions taken with the best of intentions may well be the actions that will separate her and her husband and estrange her from her sister, shattering her life and threatening not only her future, but the future of all that she holds dear.
Yet beyond plot lines and story arcs, Without a Summer is at its heart about prejudice: of cultures (English vs Irish), of social structure (gentry vs artisans, aristocracy vs working class), of economic reality (the Luddites vs mechanized manufacturing, workers vs government re: working conditions), even of personal biases (beauty vs knowledge, the past vs the present). It is admirable that we see these prejudices in not only the “villains” of the story, but in its heroes, as well. Take, for example, this conversation between Jane and Vincent regarding information they deduce about their employers:
“I was thinking that we should introduce Melody to their son when he arrives.”
“He might be a good match.”
“I am surprised that you think so.”
“It is true that I have yet to meet the young man, but with his age and situation, it is at least a possibility.”
Vincent peered down at her. “The fact that they are Irish Catholic does not trouble you?”
Jane pushed away from him, all astonishment. “What can you mean? Irish Catholic? They have no accents, no brogue. Nothing aside from Lady Stratton’s red hair could mark them so.”
“Beyond the crucifix in the library and their name, you mean?” Vincent peeked through the curtains, which showed a glimpse of Whitehall. “As for the accent, the sons of Irish nobility that I went to school with had the brogue beaten out of them.”
“But what about their name? Stratton is not a particularly Irish name, I think.”
“He is Baron Conall O’Brien of Stratton.”
Doubtful, Jane tried again. “I do not recall a crucifix.”
“It hung on the right wall of the library, near the door. It is possible that only I saw it because you were on my right, so I faced that direction, while you faced the windows.” Vincent shrugged. “You may check when we return.”
“No… no, I believe you.” She frowned, considering. “Do we need to ask them for payment in advance?”
“Well… you said they were Irish. I thought there might be concern about payment.”
It is a brave modern writer who exposes her beloved main characters this way, even if fits the sensibilities of the time and age of the story. In fact, Jane, despite her gentle and kind nature, and despite her desire to “do the right thing”, often complicates or misreads situations based on her own assumptions and biases, not only when exposed to experiences that are new or unfamiliar, but also on matters that are close – perhaps too close – to her heart. As often happens with characters in Jane Austen’s works, this ultimate realization by Ms. Kowal’s Jane, about the validity of what she initially took to be true, is what is universally appealing in Without a Summer, and is, for me, what allows the story to resonate so deeply. That it resonates in so many ways is a great credit to the author.
I was heartened to hear that there is to be yet a fourth volume of the Glamourist Histories. From the humble but engaging beginning in Shades of Milk and Honey, to the sweeping adventure of Glamour in Glass, and now in the more focused yet no less eventful Without a Summer, I have enjoyed every step I have taken with Jane and Vincent. I have no idea where Mary Robinette Kowal plans to go in her next period novel, Valour and Vanity, but I will gladly take the journey with her, no matter where it leads.
~ Sharon Browning