Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey is basically a Regency romance. Its heroine, Jane Ellsworth, is the daughter of a country gentleman; at the ripe old age of 28, she’s essentially been put on the shelf, while her mother promotes the charms of her sister Melody relentlessly to every young bachelor in the neighbourhood.
This isn’t quite the Regency as we know it, though: Kowal’s addition to the period comes in the form of glamour, a vital accomplishment for every young gentlewoman – the art of creating genteel illusions to show off in drawing rooms and dining rooms. Jane is a particularly skilled glamourist, but what she can do with that skill is obviously limited by her social status and her gender.
The novel clearly has Austenian ambitions: if you’re at all familiar with Austen, you’ll be able to see the various twists and turns the plot takes a mile off. The reading guide at the back of my copy claims it’s inspired particularly by Persuasion, but really it remixes elements from all her novels. Tonally, it’s far too “light and bright and sparkling” to have anything to do with the autumnal loveliness of Persuasion – Jane may have superficial similarities to that novel’s pale spinster Anne Elliot, but in her cleverness and her wit she’s much more like Pride and Prejudice‘s Elizabeth Bennet. Her overbearing and tactless mother, and her laconic father, likewise recall the Bennet parents much more readily than they do Sir William Elliot. There’s a Wickham figure, and a storyline much like Georgiana Darcy’s; a Mr Knightley analogue; a scene similar to Emma Woodhouse’s visit to Box Hill.
I say all this not because I think it’s particularly interesting or relevant, but simply to illustrate how Kowal fails to engage meaningfully with Austen, and with the period. The only way you could possibly read Shades of Milk and Honey as a Persuasion analogue is by misreading Persuasion: because the point of Persuasion is not that Anne is a spinster, it’s that she’s a spinster because she made a mistake in the past, and because her family neglects her almost criminally. It’s a novel about regret, about wasted potential, about the rot at the heart of the aristocracy – none of which is true of Shades and Milk and Honey, which insomuch as it’s about anything is a novel about jealousy between sisters.
It’s also a novel that fails to engage with Austen’s concerns more widely, on anything more than a superficial level. Which is to say: it’s heavily indebted to the various social dramas of Austen’s novels, the balls and the dinners and the visits and the close female friendships, without being interested in any of the sociopolitical meaning with which Austen so heavily freights these occasions. The novel has nothing to say about (for example) the role of women (beyond the usual twenty-first century response of “wasn’t it terrible to be a woman in the eighteenth century, aren’t things so much better now”), the function of romance in a patriarchal world, or the tension between our social roles and our private selves – all key interests of Austen’s. It’s puzzling that a novel so obviously, self-consciously steeped in Austen’s work seemingly has nothing to say about it.
We’d expect the fantasy element, the glamour, to do some of that metatextual work; to make us look afresh and slanted at this canonical author (as Naomi Novik does with the eighteenth century in her Temeraire series). Except – well, one very fundamental problem with glamour in the magical sense is that it’s more Faerie Queene than Pride and Prejudice; it belongs more to the Elizabethan era, which is fascinated with illusion and mirroring and the magics of the masque, than it does to the Regency, which is (generally) more interested in the rational, in social structures and comedies of manners. That’s not to say there aren’t ways glamour could work in a Regency setting, of course: it could be a potent metaphor for how we perform social roles, say, or it could point up a conflict between domesticity and art; and, indeed, Shades of Milk and Honey gestures at both these meanings. But only gestures: it has no clear sense of what this speculative element is there for. It’s magic for the sake of magic, and as a result it feels tacked-on and ill-thought-through.
I’m probably being harsher on this novel than I need to be; I certainly didn’t hate it, and though I could see the twists and turns coming I still enjoyed them. Even Austen-lite is quite fun, it turns out. But it’s nothing more than fun. It’s Austen fan-fiction – worse, Austen fan-fiction that does none of the work of reinterpretation and exploration that fan-fiction tends to be good at. It’s not terrible. But it’s not brilliant either.