|A Burne-Jones grand piano at the Victoria & Albert Museum|
With her novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal whisks us off to a time and place familiar to readers of Jane Austen’s 19th Century stories. There she introduces us to Jane Ellsworth, whose father Charles manages the family estate of Long Parkmead in Dorchester, England. While he scrupulously sets aside a portion of each year’s income to attract future son-in-laws, he knows that after paying the estate’s bills, and maintaining a standard of living acceptable to his wife (and suitable for someone of his class), he can never assemble a sizable dowry. Already his eldest daughter Jane is twenty-eight, far beyond the age at which most women marry. Sadly, while she adores Long Parkmead, she cannot count on living there forever. For the estate is entailed, and upon his death, ownership of the property will pass on to Charles' elder brother and family.
This fact might reduce some to worry. It certainly bothers her mother, who suffers from a nervous disposition and imagined illnesses. This puts added pressure on Jane, who must keep a careful watch over her younger sister Melody. Unlike her, Melody has a beautiful face and a girlish disposition that attracts available bachelors for miles around. And then there are the womanly arts, which Jane constantly practices, such as her painting, her music, and her glamour. She may not have looks or money, but might her accomplishments enable her to find a respectable man who will love and appreciate her?
Like most men, Melody's youthful smile captivates Mr. Dunkirk of nearby Robinsford Abbey. Still, he usually compliments Jane on her abilities. During his visits, he can’t help but notice how she’s enhanced the family’s drawing room. Through weaving strands of glamour out of the ether, she enhances the furniture with images of palm trees that sway to illusory breezes. Egrets alight to drink from a pond, and the setting sun casts a warm glow across the room. Once, while waiting for him to call, Jane sits down to practice the piano. Mr. Dunkirk enters then, and sees colors swirling around her, responding to the tempo and mood of her music. When she notices him and stops playing, he insists that her music and glamour offer far more than mere idle amusement. “Other men might seek a lovely face,” he tells her, “but I should think that they would consider exquisite taste the higher treasure. Beauty will fade, but not a gift such as this.”
Her younger sister Melody often grows petulant when Jane receives such compliments. She plays for men’s attention with her smiles, or feigns illness or injury to arouse their concern. From time to time, she makes attempts to better her music and glamour skills. But she lacks Jane’s patience and determination. I suppose those qualities are needed to master anything worthwhile in life: the patience to work through our mistakes, and the determination to succeed no matter how many times we fail. And I imagine that remains true regardless of what region or era we live in, and however the people who live there define the magic that enhances their lives.