It Takes Two: Magical Women with Manners

This installment of It Takes Two deals with two novels that fall into the fantasy of manners subgenre in a very unique way.  Both Shades of Milk and Honey (SoMaH), by Mary Robinette Kowal, and The Beautiful Ones (BO), forthcoming from Silvia Moreno-Garcia, feature women main characters who practice particular forms of transformative magic within their worlds.  They also feature main characters who align with the “ugly duckling” or “cinderella” trope which is popular in fantasy stories that include romantic relationships as a main plot driver.

Let’s start with the setting.  Though BO is set in an alternate world, it resembles 18th to 19th-century Europe, particularly France, in important ways, including the implied technological timeline, patriarchal values, style of dress, and emphasis on the fashionable “tonne.”  Correspondingly, SoMaH is set in an alternate England, and closely models the 18th-century world of Jane Austen’s novels.  Even though these novels are not set in the same world, they feel as though with a quick train ride, Jane could be in Loisail to visit Nina, and they could talk about art and bugs and societies that don’t value the magical abilities of women in the same way they do with men.

Which brings us to the second, and perhaps most satisfying similarity between the two novels: women using magical abilities as an important plot element.  Not only are both of the main characters magically talented–Jane uses glamour, while Nina is telekinetic–but we have love interests for each main character who are also magic users and whose abilities give them much more social and economic currency than is available to the women.  Jane is lucky enough that modest use of glamour brings her a certain amount of attraction, because glamour falls under the “category of skills and talents that all gentlewomen should have,” however Jane has a markedly higher skill level with glamour and so it becomes a liability at times.  Nina’s telekinetic ability has made her a social pariah since she was a child, and a large motivator for the plot comes in her family’s sending her to the big city of Loisail for the Grand Season in an attempt to marry her off to someone who has never heard of the Witch of Oldhouse, her family’s country estate in Montipourret.  People see her ability, and willingness to use it, as a marker of her childishness, untrustworthiness, and lack of ladylike manners.

To add insult to injury, Jane’s love interest is a man who travels as an artist, using his ability with glamour to successfully support himself and gain fame, while Nina’s love interest, Hector Auvray, is a world-famous performer with his telekinetic ability, who has made enough money in ten years of performing to set himself up comfortably for the rest of his life.  It is not surprising that people with the same talent would be drawn to each other, as friends and lovers, because in straight-laced societies it is nice to have someone who understands the restrictions under which one lives, however what does it mean that magical women end up with men whose practical societal advantages are compounded by their ability to freely and productively use their magical ability, where the women are not?

It is largely a convention of romantic plot building that makes this kind of resolution possible.  Something built into the story makes them an unlikely pair from a conventional standpoint–Jane is a “spinster” at 28 years old, while Nina is an unmannered country girl who is more interested in collecting bugs than collecting suitors and fancy dresses–which calls for a “happy” conclusion involving the social outcasts finding common ground and respect in a society based on having the right connections and conforming to superficial norms.  In both stories, the magical abilities of the characters has the potential to disrupt the mannerly societies in which these characters are mired, and it is almost as if the young women’s choosing to acquiesce to the love plot and form traditional romantic relationships is necessary for the ability of the story to end, in essence for the magic to let go of the characters and allow for the more palatable, more acceptable focus of marriage.  To contrast, Sarah Monette’s The Goblin Emperor doesn’t need the happy resolution of a traditional love plot to find its end.  Instead, it is the main character’s ability to make sense of the rigid society into which he has been thrust, and come to terms with its demands upon himself that wraps up the novel.

Perhaps it’s a function of the strict economies upon which these stories are based, with social capital being so closely tied to personal wealth due to its requirement for appearances, and the potential for magic to circumvent this structure in some way, or maybe it’s something else that drives the resolution.  Either way, both these stories have a unique chemistry that is highly satisfying on a number of levels.

In Love with Love

Shades of Milk and Honey, Marriage, and Love in Regency England

Jane Austen’s legacy provides a
rich field to till for authors of many different persuasions. Many Austen
adaptations and inspirations are entertaining, true to Austen’s world to one
degree or another, and engage with the themes that modern readers identify as
important in Austen’s works, but Mary Robinette Kowal takes a different
approach.  Her novel, Shades of Milk and Honey interrogates
both the the critical themes of Austen’s work and Pride and Prejudice in particular, and also takes on modern
readers’ relationships to the Regency period and Austen’s stories themselves.

Shades
of Milk and Honey
comments on and engages in a critical dialogue with
Austen’s novel, with the early English novel in general, and with modern
adaptations of Austen’s work by bringing the same themes into play that are so
effective in Pride and Prejudice, and
reinterpreting them in the context of a modern perspective.  With the addition of Glamour as a both
a major plot device and as a driving force of life for her novel’s characters,
much as money and appearance were emphasized in Austen’s novels, Kowal comments
on the major themes of the Early English novel—the social and legal status of
women, the idea of the love marriage, and society and the notions of propriety it
engenders—and draws parallels to modern novel themes.

Two Novels in
Parallel

Kowal reproduces or adapts key aspects of Pride and Prejudice in order to build
her themes, but she also creates new scenes in order to elicit a particular
response from the reader.  Names are
an obvious parallel—Jane is still the eldest sister, however this time she is
the protagonist.  Long Parkmead
reminds readers of Elizabeth Bennet’s Longbourne itself, and the relationship
between Miss Dunkirk and her brother nearly mirrors that of Miss Darcy to her
brother at certain parts of Shades of
Milk and Honey

Both
novels take part in a foregrounding of the young which not only places the
marriageable generation as the drivers of their respective novel plots, but in
effect infantilizes the older generation, rendering those parents and other
adult role models as ineffectual and often ridiculous.  This is seen as obviously as Mrs.
Bennet and Mrs. Ellsworth being completely ineffective parents to their
daughters, and as Lady DeBurgh’s temper tantrums and Lady FitzCameron’s
possibly encouraging her daughter to use Glamour on her own appearance despite
the danger to her health.  Mr.
Bennet of course purposefully remains so intent upon laughing at the world
that he is unaware of the follies of his daughters unless forced into it in, as
with Lydia’s elopement, and though Mr. Ellsworth is financially more astute he
still is ignorant to Melody’s romantic machinations until Jane brings them to
his attention, and even then doesn’t seem to know what to do about it.

For
Austen and her contemporaries this foregrounding may well have been a
commentary on the state of society in which the young are called upon to right
the errors of their elders—humorously given voice in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies—but though modern readers may be
unaware of the term, Shades of Milk and
Honey
is a marriage plot novel just like those of Austen and her
contemporaries.  Young ladies and
young gentlemen are expected to pursue one another and reach a conclusion in
which at least one couple has paired off and achieved a marriage–marriage being the only morally and socially acceptable outcome.  The question in both Austen and Kowal’s
novels remains the same: which sister will marry, and who is meant to be the
true focus of the novel?  We will
revisit this theme later.

Two Novels in
Conversation

 Few could argue that Pride and Prejudice is Austen’s great
novel of appearance.  Austen
exaggerated markers of appearance, wealth, and manners in order to build her
major themes, the most prevalent of which was the state of women as the
property of men.  While Shades of Milk and Honey does not directly
replicate Austen’s themes, the novel does allude to them in examining how modern
audiences have come to terms with Austen’s social critique, and how a novel can
take on new meanings for readers that the author likely never intended. Kowal
demonstrates great facility with Regency-period language, allowing the reader
to feel immersed in the world, however she astutely does not attempt to
recreate the linguistic gymnastics by which Austen had built her world of
appearance and misapprehension. 
Possibly the decision rested on the practical concerns of a story not
designed for that type of discourse, however it’s likely Kowal understood
that Austen’s methods are often overlooked or misunderstood by modern readers
who are more interested in a love story than a social critique anyway.

Glamour is a much more readable
metaphor for knowledge and lack of knowledge.  Glamour can literally change what people see, whether that
consists of illusions that aren’t actually real or hiding objects and people in
plain sight.  Characters can’t
always trust what they understand to be the truth about their situations or the
people around them.  Kowal has
introduced a fantasy narrative by including the concept and reality of Glamour
to her Regency England setting; deeper readers of Austen’s novels, though,
might be right in asserting that a happy love marriage between a poor
gentlewoman and a man who is both good and rich is just as much a fantasy as
Glamour, and that that was an intentional irony on Austen’s part.

Knowledge and property are central
to Kowal’s themes.  When we first
meet Jane she is involved both in trying to guess at Mr. Dunkirk’s motivations
for visiting, and then performing Glamour.  Both of these scenes are to recur throughout the novel.  Her status as a social outsider—created
mainly by her age and physical appearance—allows her to observe and gather
knowledge about others’ social exploits. 
Her great talent with Glamour turns her into a performer and teacher in
more than one instance.  Kowal sets
Jane up as potentially both very valuable, and at the same time not—in the
first instance for her obvious talents and in the second for being considered
unattractive and somewhat socially inept. 
Kowal further complicates the idea of women’s worth by making Melody
both very attractive and very untalented, and painfully aware of both.  Melody sees her own sister as a
potential rival, with neither woman able to assess their own worth in the eyes
of men without comparing themselves to the other. 

Competition among young women has
become a common trope in both modern fiction and adaptations of Austen’s work,
however many who emulate Austen stop short of properly elucidating the source
of such competition.  Women compete
because, like a horse race, they won’t know who is winning until the end.  Until a man comes along and picks one
of them, women can’t make a judgment about who is “the best.”  Austen inextricably ties comprehension
and ownership together in Pride and
Prejudice
.  Being effective
property themselves, first of their fathers and then of their husbands, women
find it difficult or even impossible to own anything, including comprehension
and knowledge.  Susan C. Greenfield
connects this to Elizabeth’s ability to assess her feelings for Darcy, even
after he reveals the truth about his relationship with Wickham, but it
manifests in many ways throughout Pride
and Prejudice.
 

Pride
and Prejudice
is full of instances where what is commonly accepted as true
really isn’t.  Austen begins the
novel with a false assumption, evoking both societal expectations of young men
and women, as well as the idea that men are in want of nothing as they are the sole
vessels of ownership during that period. 
Throughout the novel, women can never trust the veracity of words spoken
between themselves and young men and must constantly guard against being taken
advantage of. According to Greenfield, the “things outside their bodies are
literally less available—and in this way more absent—than they are for a landed
hero like Mr. Darcy.  Such absence,
the novel suggests, places greater restrictions on women’s knowledge” (339). In reaction to this state, Elizabeth Bennet wields irony and wit in order to distance herself from
both her situation as property and her ultimate inability to judge.  Even Elizabeth is not immune to the
restrictions Greenfield describes, however, and succumbs to the marriage plot
even though Jane and Bingley manage to satisfy its requirements.  But Elizabeth’s wit is a beloved trope
that modern writers love to include in their Austen-inspired works.  Elizabeth is the heroine readers love
and want to be—the woman who can move through society seemingly untouched, as
Mr. Darcy so memorably says, “professing opinions which in fact are not your
own,“ with no immediate repercussions, and end up with the most eligible
man at the end of the story—all the while refusing or unable to see that
Elizabeth’s agency is still curtailed by the confines of the story and is
largely illusory. 

Kowal skewers the trope by creating
a protagonist whose position at the margins of her society is created by those
around her and who manages to retain her agency even while completing the
marriage plot.  While there is
nothing, besides her own distaste, keeping Elizabeth from participating in
society, Jane is curtailed by her appearance—a significant marker of value—and
by her personality.  Unlike Darcy,
however, she doesn’t have the privilege of simply being a man of great pride to
retain any place in society.  
Though Jane is widely recognized for her talents with Glamour, she gains
no esteem for it, and is relegated to playing the assistant to Vincent, who has
come along and made Glamour worthwhile by being a man who performs
does the same thing women have been to little or no recognition.  His own off-putting behavior
is excused largely by his being male.

Jane Ellsworth, rather than
springing fully formed from the pages of a well-loved novel into every
derivative work and waiting around for the opportunity to realize what she
really wants, grows perceptibly in agency and awareness from the beginning to
the end of Shades of Milk and Honey.  While the change for Elizabeth by the
end of the novel is in the opportunities with which she is presented, for Jane
it is her own trust in herself and ability to leverage her social knowledge and
talent with Glamour that changes dramatically.  Though Kowal drops hints throughout Shades of Milk and Honey, the reader does not even know whether to hope for a marriage outcome,
much less who to pick for Jane.  While in Pride and Prejudice the reader is poised for the delicious moment
when Elizabeth is finally allowed to
love Darcy, in Shades of Milk and Honey
the reader is rewarded by Jane finally being allowed to love and value herself. 

Much of this change happens because
of, or in parallel with, Jane’s use of Glamour.  It is not surprising, then, that Glamour is the device Kowal
uses to examine modern interpretations of Pride
and Prejudice
, and to reinterpret women’s place as property in Regency
England for a modern audience.  One
of our most prominent scenes of Glamour usage happens during the Tableau
Vivant.  In this scene Jane masters
a difficult new skill almost on the spot, and is next seen masquerading as her own beautiful sister
in order to carry out the Classical story of Daphne becoming a laurel tree to
escape the attentions of Apollo.  Not
only does this scene justify Jane’s unease in social situations and the
difficulty women experience when they attract “too much” attention, but it also
demonstrates the tension between being perceived as beautiful and pursuing
beauty.  To complete the scene,
Jane must appear as an extremely beautiful woman and the first woman she can
think of is her sister.  When
Vincent embraces her in what seems to be a spur of the moment decision, is he
embracing Jane, or Melody, or Jane’s attempt to become more beautiful?

In a later scene, Jane actually
uses Glamour to affect her appearance, altering her own features in small ways
that change her from “plain Jane,” to someone who by societal standards would
be considered beautiful.  Though in
an earlier scene several characters comment negatively on this practice,
referring specifically to Miss FitzCameron, as author Kowal presents it
without overt judgment, allowing Jane to explore the idea herself and assess
its worth.  From the outside,
readers might conclude that women might be able to use Glamour to affect how
they are perceived and consequently their futures.  But could Glamour actively change the status of women? 

As the story progresses, it becomes
apparent that if she were so inclined Jane could affect the outcomes of other
characters’ stories in addition to her own, but she merely waits.  She doesn’t act until pushed into it by the impending
ruination of both her sister and Miss Dunkirk—namely, pushed by the actions of
one dishonest man.  Though women
have more at stake in developing both social knowledge and Glamour, both are
presented as the property and domain of men.  Jane doesn’t know what to do with her knowledge of Miss
Dunkirk’s actions, besides wait around for it to go so far that she has to tell
Mr. Dunkirk.  Despite her facility
with Glamour—an ability that is widely accepted as a “women’s activity,” Jane
still has little power to act within her circumstances and remain within the
norms of society.  Were she to tell
Mr. Dunkirk of his sister’s secrets Jane would lose a friend and possibly the
esteem and confidence of other ladies. 
If she allowed Miss Dunkirk to make her own mistakes, Jane could lose
status in society simply because of her association with a young lady who has
been dishonored. 

Jane falls back to simply excelling
at womanly pursuits—reading, music, Glamour, clothing, etc—which have been
judged meaningless and valueless by men and hence worthy activities for women
who have no real stake in the world anyway.  Once Vincent appears using Glamour as a professional, a
division is created between the women who are expected to perform for
almost no recognition, and the man who is entreated to bestow it upon the
world.  Glamour, whatever pretty
things that women are allowed to make with it, as a worthy art form has moved
to the domain of men and does not actively help women come to terms with
society.  Instead, the possibility
that a woman would use Glamour to change her appearance complicates the existing
system by which the inherent worth of a woman is calculated.  Rather than having more power, women
are more suspect because the currency by which women are valued can now be counterfeited. 

The fact of a woman being so competent at Glamour that she can change her own appearance, far from increasing her value and marriageability, merely makes women’s value more difficult to parse, and thus women’s place in society more precarious.  The only woman
shown using Glamour in a professional capacity is a seamstress, consulted only
when the landed elites need new party attire, and easily forgotten
afterwards. 

What’s Love Got to Do
with It

 Vincent and Jane’s romance is, like
Elizabeth and Darcy’s, an opportunity for the reader to rejoice in the
heroine’s great good fortune. 
Austen makes Elizabeth’s good fortune literal, while Kowal focuses on Jane’s
romantic good fortune; Jane has interpretive advantages over Elizabeth and, due
to her father’s slightly better foresight, less of a need for a secure place in
the world.  Kowal cements this in
the way she reveals the romantic connection between Vincent and Jane.  By making his feelings for her explicit
and readable by other characters in the story, in contrast to the way in which
Darcy has all the power in relationship to Elizabeth, Kowal interrogates the
modern audience’s love for that love story.  We know why Austen married them off in the end: because a
marriage plot demands a marriage, and without a husband Elizabeth would have
been a baggage without an owner.  A
woman is nothing if she is not the property either of her father or her
husband, which is why Miss Darcy’s elopement with Wickham would have been so
horrible had it come to light: she never would have found a proper
husband.  One might wonder at the
problematic way in which Lydia is made into a punishment to Wickham for his dishonest
and lecherous ways, even and especially in the way that filmic adaptations seem
to revel in it, yet modern Austenites have little to say on that. 

I would argue that the caricaturish
way in which Austen treats her non-protagonists differs from Kowal’s treatment
of her secondary characters because of the great differences in point of view
reference.  Ever ironic Elizabeth
is prone to seeing people as exaggerations, while Jane is much more likely to
be sympathetic.  Each is a foil to
their love interest, their dominant trait being what becomes attractive—Elizabeth’s
willingness to judge appealing to Darcy’s highly developed sense of pride, and
Jane’s sensitivity to the feelings and desires of others attracting Vincent,
who is sensitive and protective of his work.

The use of Vincent as a foil to
Jane as not only a love interest but as a Glamourist is perhaps Kowal’s most
incisive critique of modern society and the love plots that continue to invade
popular fiction and media.  Glamour
is, at its heart, a form of magic that in other fantasy settings could have
been the great equalizer of society, allowing women to step into an authority
and equality they didn’t have in Regency England and still don’t have now.  Except that hasn’t happened in Shades of Milk and Honey.  Here the novel begins to cross over
into steampunk territory, and thereby achieves its best critique: it’s going to
take more than a little magic, or a few tokens, to significantly change society
for the better.  Women don’t stop
being property, don’t stop being put into the same marriage plots, until those
who make the rules, and those who write the stories, do something significantly
different.  In steampunk novels
anything and everything is possible from living dirigibles to steam-powered wearable
sewing machines, yet gender roles are still rigidly enforced.  Far from creating a derivative work of fiction, Kowal has
refocused the lens from the read to the reader. 

There is, after all, little in a
world dominated by men that assists women in coming to terms with, or having
ownership in it.  Austen knew it,
though she was constrained by her genre. 
Greenfield may in fact have been correct in her interpretation of
Elizabeth’s feelings for Darcy—the necessity of obtaining distance from him in
which to realize her love—or she may not have been.  Readers will go to quite great lengths to make a potentially
problematic story right in their minds, in order to go on loving it.  It is entirely possible that Austen
left Elizabeth’s feelings, her coming to terms with Darcy, ambiguous, allowing
the readers to create the interpretations they need to find the story
satisfying, and for Austen to be satisfied with her own work at the same
time.  This helps to explain why
modern readers consider Pride and
Prejudice
such a great love story—that is, they consider Elizabeth and
Darcy’s such a great love story, when in fact it is the triumph of Jane and
Bingley’s story we ought to be believing in—that hundreds of novels have
borrowed from and re-written it, from Fitzwilliam
Darcy, Rock Star
to Definitely Maybe
in Love,
to Prom and Prejudice.  Jane Bennet much more closely realizes the early novel’s perfect heroine, being kind, sensitive, beautiful, and above all not assertive.  These are the women who are traditionally awarded marriage after they have completed a trial of their virtue.

I believe first that Kowal felt how
insubstantial the ending of Pride and Prejudice was, as she has given Jane a much larger
degree of control over her own end, and allowed the reader a better glimpse
into Jane’s mind as she realizes her feelings for Vincent. Secondly, Kowal has
written the story of the eldest sister, asking the reader to consider the shy,
sympathetic woman as not only a subject in the marriage plot but as a strong and competent character.  Far from the ironic bluster of Elizabeth, the only illusion
in Jane’s story comes from the existence of Glamour.  Elizabeth, more than anyone in Pride and Prejudice, took part in the culture of appearance she so
wittily railed against, while Jane Ellsworth wanted little more than for people
to see beyond appearance, to find worth in more than just her looks.  This is both a satisfying re-write to
an oft-misinterpreted story, and a subtle critique on a modern readership that
is so taken with the love-marriage plot that it has fallen blindly in love with
a marriage plot disguised as love.

Works Cited:

Austen, Jane. The Complete Novels. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.

Greenfield, Susan C. “The Absent-Minded Heroine: Or, Elizabeth Bennet has a Thought.” Eighteenth-Century Studies. 39.3 (2006) : 337-350. JSTOR. Web. 10 June 2015. 

Kowal, Mary Robinette. Shades of Milk and Honey. New York: Tor, 2010. Print.

Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal

In the tradition of Jane Austen’s Society
novels, Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey re-imagines
Regency England with a fantasy twist. 
In the world of the Glamourist series, certain talented people have the
ability to manipulate the invisible ether, creating whatever imagery they wish;
most often women are glamourists, and it is one of the accomplishments expected
of a young lady.  At first I was
charmed by Kowal’s seamless introduction of glamour into the everyday life of
gentle families in the English countryside as though it were no different from
embroidery or playing musical instruments.  As the story progresses, however, I found Kowal’s use of glamour
in life and society to provide additional nuance to a genre of writing that
Austen created which critiqued how the value of women rested in their physical
appearance and ability to perform artful, ornamental activities. 

The story
follows the lives of Jane Ellsworth and her sister Melody as they participate
in the social scene of Dorchester where the primary activity of young people is
to find eligible partners.  Reputation
is everything, and one’s ability to move skillfully through the social scene is
a of utmost importance.  Jane, the
elder, does not possess the physical beauty of her sister, but is more
accomplished and intelligent.  Her
father, unlike the eponymous Mr. Bennett, has made efforts to support his
daughters in the future rather than relying on their marrying well, though the
Ellsworths are far from the social elite of their neighborhood.  Each daughter must shine on her own
merits, rather than any allure that a ready fortune can inspire. 

Though Shades of Milk and Honey borrows heavily
from Austen’s well-known novels, it is written to appeal to modern
sensibilities.  Kowal’s characters
do not exemplify any one type, and rather than the more scathing indictment of
Regency society that Austen’s novels often were, Kowal’s novel romanticizes—in
much the same way modern readers romanticize Austen, and especially Pride and Prejudice—Regency England,
writing more of an adventure romance than a society novel.  Not that this is a bad thing.  Kowal preserves and builds on some of
the most incisive commentary of Austen’s fictions, adding her own well-placed
wit where opportune. 

Kowal
writes with inspiration and a natural ease in her chosen milieu.  The small amount of world-building that
her plot requires is expertly accomplished, blending reality and fantasy in a
way that satisfactorily accounts for any suspected plot-holes or
inconsistencies created by the existence of magic in a pre-industrial society.

Readers
who loved Jane Austen’s novels will of course be enraptured by Kowal’s.  Her obvious love of the canon results
in scenes that place the reader fully in Regency England.  Urban fantasy enthusiasts—those who
don’t see werewolves and vampires as necessary to a good fantasy novel, anyway—will
also enjoy Kowal’s melding of magical and realist elements.  I’m thinking here of Kate Elliott’s
Spiritwalker books, but steampunk readers will also enjoy Kowal’s unabashed
inclusion of fantasy elements in period drama.  This novel and series are also recommended to readers who
enjoyed Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels.