I spent most of my writing time today not actually writing. The scene I was writing involved a dinner which in turn involved me realizing that I could not write it until I had done a seating chart so that I knew where people were sitting and what the order of precedence was in going in to dinner. I wound up needing to elevate one gentleman from a Viscount to a Marquess in order to place him where I needed him at the table. It was significantly more complicated that I would have liked.
In fact, I had to do this in Shades of Milk and Honey as well for the dinner party at Lady FitzCameron’s.
You’ll note that there are a number of characters, like Sir Harrison, who don’t appear in the book. That’s because I needed some people just to pad out the table in order to get my principals in the right place. Sir Harrison, for instance, is a Baronet and can push Mr. Dunkirk down the ranking so that he sits next to Jane Ellsworth. It was unexpectedly complicated.
One of my primary resources for this is Laura A. Wallace’s excellent pages on English peerage and precedence. If you are writing anything set in the Regency I highly recommend these with the caveat that you have to actually read the entire site before deploying the information in there. She’s thorough, but things are tricksy. Yes, they are.
My friend and Medieval scholar, Michael Livingston — for whom I named Captain Livingston — has written a post about the language in Shades of Milk and Honey. In it, he translates a few lines of the novel into Old English and Middle English
Anyway, at one point Mary and I were talking about voicing and language patterns, and I told her (not for the first time) that I loved how she’d worked so hard to maintain the “Austen voice.” She thanked me, smiled, then mentioned that more than one reader has complained about how she wrote “Old English.”
We found this no end of amusing. Jane Austen, you see, wrote in the early 19th-century, and people stopped writing Old English around the 12th. The reader’s accusation was thus twice-wrong: (1) I think Mary does an excellent job within the linguistic constraints she set upon herself; and (2) Austen-speak is some 6 or 7 centuries away from Old English. Austen doesn’t sound a whit like Old English. For that matter, Austen doesn’t even sound like Middle English, which predates her by only a few centuries.
To illustrate, let’s look at a couple lines from Mary’s novel and see what they might look like in previous dialects.
I got a lovely email today, letting me know that Shades of Milk and Honeyis a SLC Reader’s Choice nominee. You all know how much I adore libraries, so to be on this list is a real honor.
The Salt Lake County Library System is the largest in Utah, serving over 650,000 residents, through 18 libraries. Twice a year, the Reader’s Choice Committee selects twenty or more recently published books that have been recommended by other staff or customers. We want to include those titles that are not a “best-sellers” but are so good you just can’t put them down — and when you do finish, you have to tell all your friends! These books are purchased in multiples and placed on display at each Salt Lake County Library for a four-month period. After reading any of the books on our Reader’s Choice list, customers may rate the books using one of our ballot forms.
Twenty-nine titles have been chosen for the voting period. The title receiving the most #1 votes from our customers by November 1, 2011 will be declared the winner.
Yay! Our hometime independent paper, The Portland Mercury not only reviewed Shades of Milk and Honey but also liked it!
Wish Jane Austen’s subtle novels had a little more action, but fewer zombies? Well, Portlander Mary Robinette Kowal’s debut novel Shades of Milk and Honey is your new manna. In this age of Regency spinning, it’s apparent Austen’s books make a well-stretched canvas for fantasy and sci-fi authors to paint upon. Kowal’s novel is a shining example of how to seamlessly blend magic with empire-waisted romance.
It is so very, very gratifying when someone gets what I was trying to do with the Austeninan aspect of Shades of Milk and Honey.
Jane Austen famously described her novels — in a description subsequently often quoted to denigrate her work and that of other female writers, either overtly or through a backhanded head-pat — as “The little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush as produces little effect after much labour.” Mary Robinette Kowal’s first novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, is deeply in that Austenian tradition, and will certainly garner a few head-pats of its own, from the clueless and the sensation-addicted. But writing a novel this quiet, this domestic and constrained and pure, in the early 21st century — not to mention doing it in a genre as entirely built on external action and what teenage boys call “adventure” as fantasy — is surely one of the most radical things that any writer could hope to do, a perfectly shaped and wielded knitting needle thrust, with all the best taste and tact possible, right into the Achilles heel of the genre.
Between now and March 9th you can enter to win one of three copies of Shades of Milk and Honey as part of their Locus Challenge.
As part of our Locus Challenge, we are hosting a giveaway for three copies of Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal to three lucky readers in the United States or Canada, thanks to the generosity of Tor Books. Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal is on the Locus recommended reading list as one of the best first novels of the year 2010.
Host Marianne Barisonek speaks with Mary Robinette Kowal the author of Shades of Milk and Honey, 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.
As a Christmas present, I’d like to give you a short story which takes place between the end of Shades of Milk and Honey and the beginning of Glamour in Glass. Unavoidably, it contains a spoiler so I’ve hidden the story below.
With any newly-wed couple, there are many trials which must be met and, without a doubt, the first Christmas is among the chief of those. Whose traditions should one follow? To whose home should one go? What of the Christmas pudding? It is infrequent, however, that one inquires about the reasons that one’s husband has hidden himself in the bedchamber.
Jane knocked on her bedroom door and waited a moment before entering. She leaned close to the door, endeavouring to hear over the jollity from the dining room of their rented apartments. Her parents and her sister were making merry with some cousins who had come to London for the holidays. She waited by the door until Vincent said, “Come.”
Though it was not her common practise, she did not want to surprise her husband if he happened to have a Christmas gift in hand. Jane slipped through the door, shutting it behind her. The drapes had been drawn hiding the last light of the setting sun. Vincent sat by the fire, cast into silhouette against its flames.
“My love? It is nearly time to light the Yule candle.”
He did not stir but heaved a great sigh.
Uncertain, Jane stood by the door. They had been married but two months prior and spent all the intervening time in London creating glamours for his majesty the Prince Regent. This night marked their first surcease from labour and Vincent had seemed out of sorts all afternoon although he denied it soundly.
Were it not for the fact that he wove a strand of glamour she might have thought he had fallen asleep in his chair.
The strand of glamour twisted in the air above his hand in random patterns, as if blue smoke were billowing from his fingers. “Please do not wait upon me.”
Jane bit her lower lip. She tried to make her voice light as she approached him. “Though I know it was rank superstition, I doubt that I will be able to persuade my mother to discard the belief that something ill will befall the family if we are not all present when the candle is lit.”
“I am certain you exaggerate as I am not family.”
She stopped, aghast at his statement. “How can you think that? Who has made you feel so unwelcome.”
“No one.” Vincent groaned and leaned forward in his chair to rest his elbows on his knees. His face, thus illuminated by the fire showed damp streaks. He could not have been– but Jane saw no other explanation than that her husband had been weeping. “By word and deed I have been made most welcome and yet find such earnestness hard to credit. How can your family be pleased to have a stranger in their midst on Christmas Eve? Especially one who has dragged them from their home?”
“They chose to come and gladly, to be with us.” Jane crossed to his chair and rested her hand upon one of his broad shoulders. “My mother, in particular, adores you.”
“Adores? I doubt that.”
“But she does. You must know that she despaired of my ever marrying.”
“Then she feels gratitude, not adoration. Adoration is reserved for saints.”
Jane laughed. “You are inconsistent, my love. Many times have you told me that you adore me.”
Turning his head, he took her hand and kissed it. “There is no inconsistency in my statement, Muse.”
As always, when he called her thus, Jane’s heart seemed to fill her bosom. Her knees weakened and she sat upon the arm of Vincent’s chair. He shifted to the side and, with one arm, drew her down to sit upon his knee. With a sigh, Jane leaned against his chest, fingering the end of his cravat. “Why are you sad?”
His breathing roughened and he tightened his grip upon her waist. “I am overwhelmed.” Turning his head from her, Vincent pressed his free hand against his mouth.
Jane traced the path of his tears with her finger. She had seen him argue with the Prince Regent, face down critics, and work from dawn to dawn but never had she seen him display anything like a fragile sensibility. She waited, pressing tender kisses upon his brow as he collected himself.
Clearing his throat, Vincent made a mocking laugh. “My family does not observe these traditions, save to impress and certainly without any sense of piety or earnest feeling. To be amidst such palpable good will… it undoes me.”
Her husband but rarely spoke of his life before he left his family and changed his name. Jane had yet to meet his father, the Count of Verbury, and no strong wish to ever do so. She squeezed his hand. “What may I do to help you?”
“You have done more than I can express simply by your presence.” He cleared his throat. “Will I truly be missed if I am not present?”
She longed to tell him that he could remain in the solitude of their bedchamber but she knew that her mother, no matter how much she adored Vincent, would feel a slight at his absence. Mrs. Ellsworth would perceive it as a refusal to participate. Knowing the truth of his parentage, as few of their acquaintances did, she would think that Vincent thought himself superior to them. To tell him that would only make the evening more difficult to endure. “I would miss you.”
“Then that is sufficient.” He lifted her from his lap and rose to stand beside her.
“Truly… if you do not wish to–.”
Vincent pressed his finger against her lips to silence her. “How could I not follow my Muse?”
He took her hand and let Jane lead him out to join the Christmas festivities. Let it be said that, though it was a foreign affair to at least one member of their party, and though the Ellsworths of Long Parkmede were at a remove from their family home, the Christmas dinner was an event of great joy. As they sat around the dinner table, with the Yule light burning bright, the Ellsworths and the Vincents wished each other a very Happy Christmas.
May that same sentiment be the true for us all, no matter how near or how far.
The San Francisco Chronicle just posted their list of the Best science fiction and fantasy books of 2010. Shades of Milk and Honey is on there!
Kowal presents a tale of romance in Regency England with just a sprinkling of fantasy. Able to pull “glamour” out of the ether and create intricate tableaux that trick the eye and delight the mind, Jane Ellsworth yearns for true love but believes herself to be too old and too plain to catch any bachelor’s eye. This low-key novel succeeds through understated humor and sprightly prose, rather than through absurd juxtapositions of the historical and the supernatural.
(Tor Books – July 14 2020) Mary Robinette Kowal continues her Hugo and Nebula award-winning Lady Astronaut series, following The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky, with The Relentless Moon. The Earth is coming to the boiling point as the climate disaster of the Meteor strike becomes more and more clear, but the political situation is already overheated. Riots and […]