Shades of Milk and Honey
(Glamourist Histories #1)
By Mary Robinette Kowal
Shades of Milk and Honeyis an intimate portrait of Jane Ellsworth, a woman ahead of her time in a version of Regency England where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality. But despite the prevalence of magic in everyday life, other aspects of Dorchester’s society are not that different: Jane and her sister Melody’s lives still revolve around vying for the attentions of eligible men.
Jane resists this fate, and rightly so: while her skill with glamour is remarkable, it is her sister who is fair of face, and therefore wins the lion’s share of the attention. At the ripe old age of twenty-eight, Jane has resigned herself to being invisible forever. But when her family’s honor is threatened, she finds that she must push her skills to the limit in order to set things right–and, in the process, accidentally wanders into a love story of her own.
Set in the Jane Austen era and written generally in that style, Shades of Milk and Honeyfollows Jane Ellsworth as she struggles to accept that she will likely never marry since she is single at the ripe old age of 28 and not nearly as pretty as her younger sister Melody. What Jane does have going for her is a superior ability to manipulate ‘glamour’, a form a magic that allows one to change how something looks or sounds or smells. It is considered an art, not a science, so is relegated to the women’s realm. Men have the ability but most don’t bother to learn how to glamour, unless they are especially adept. (Per usual, the best teachers are men even though young women are supposed to be the students.)
Jane knows her glamour skills are better than most but only uses them in the typical ways – to enhance her painting or piano-playing, to create a parlor with a slight breeze that smells of honeysuckle for guests. She doesn’t dare indulge in applying a glamour to herself, as in the case of a neighboring young woman who glamours her face to be prettier. Jane fears what will happen when the suitor has to deal with the reality underneath the magic.
Melody is pretty and lovely and flirts exceptionally but has little skill in glamour. Both have the case of the grass being greener. Jane knows that a man wants a pretty wife. Melody sees her sister’s skill as more attractive because what can a pretty face do? The title comes from the description of Melody’s complexion as shades of milk and honey, and drives home Jane’s inadequacy as a major component of the story.
They are both interested in Mr. Dunkirk. Jane is surprised when she learns Melody likes the man but respectfully hides her own feelings. She preens internally when Mr. Dunkirk compliments her glamours and comments on how that sort of skill can really make a house a home. When his sister Beth arrives, her interest in learning about glamour turns into a friendship with Jane, which is something of a comfort as Jane and Melody are drifting further and further apart as their emotions and pursuits cause each other pain.
Also in the area is Mr. Vincent, a renowned glamourist hired by the FitzCamerons to complete an intricate mural in their dining room. Jane has several encounters with Mr. Vincent that challenge her, often making her uncomfortable. He glowers at her for peering into the magic behind his work before the mural is complete. He prefers that the audience take in the effect for what it is instead of trying to see the structure that holds it together. When he completes a glamour during a group outing that makes him disappear, she is able to decipher his technique and quickly copies the spell which earns more derisive remarks. She is intrigued by Mr. Vincent but also on edge around him as he isn’t particularly pleasant and makes strong pronouncements that confound her and make her question her own art and skill.
Add into the mix Captain Livingston, nephew of Lady FitzCameron and childhood friend of the Jane and Melody, and even more romantic options, hence intrigue, ensues.
While on the surface a story about a potential spinster trying to make do with her lot in life, Shades of Milk and Honey had a deeper theme of passion. What is art without passion? What is life? Should Jane really accept what appears to be her future or should she find a way to pursue pleasure? Emotions run high underneath the societal rules of civility and Jane needs to learn how to explore and even embrace those emotions for a fuller existence.
I always enjoy Regency era stories that are about people, as opposed to events. Not every tale needs to be about the larger world. A domestic drama can be just as compelling if the personal stakes are high for the characters. Jane and Melody’s futures, as well as a threat to the family’s drama, are very real for them so push the plot up the hill to the climactic fight scene. (The only spoiler you’ll get.)