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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Pride And Prejudice And Propriety

An early 19th Century fan made of horn and metal,
courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, England

There’s more to evoking the spirit of Jane Austen than using favorite character names, such as Jane and Elizabeth, or creating similar names like Mr. Dunkirk (to Austen’s Mr. Darcy). Such an effort demands more than to merely include a few Austen-like words, such as teaze, chuze, or nuncheon. So in preparing her novel Shades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal meticulously studied favorite novels like Persuasion, Sense And Sensibility, and Pride And Prejudice. She drew up rules of grammar, and made her own Austen dictionary. Then she embarked on her goal of returning us to Regency Era England, and populated it with characters, situations, and story structures that evoke Jane Austen's classic stories.

Regency Era English society followed strict rules, and any who ignored them tarnished or ruined their reputations. Thus, we read a plentitude of “Forgive me’s” and “Thank you’s” in Kowal's novel. Characters dress, act, and talk in proscribed ways for various types of social events. No one willingly says or does the wrong thing in a particular social setting, at least not if he or she possesses a modicum of common sense. 

Jane Austen often touched on myriad aspects of society, and populated her novels with a large cast of characters. Kowal's novel is shorter, and her focus rarely wavers from her central character of Ms. Jane Ellsworth. Thus, while we meet a few rogues and officious matriarchs, we don't encounter anyone as completely lacking in common sense as William Collins in Pride And Prejudice. He simply doesn’t seem to have a clue as to how others see him. He may be a Church of England priest, but when he talks, others hide their smiles or frowns. Not even his patroness Lady Catherine de Borough, or his wife Charlotte Lucas, truly respects him.

In Shades of Milk and Honey, Jane Ellsworth scrupulously follows the rules of etiquette. Still, misunderstandings are inevitable. Remember when Mr. Dunkirk surprises Jane playing the piano in the drawing room? Melody inadvertently enters and finds them together. She holds strong feelings for Mr. Dunkirk, and sees Jane's quiet conversation with him as something of a betrayal. This prompts her go to increasingly greater attempts to attract and win the complete attention of all worthy suitors. After watching Mr. Vincent’s shadow play of “The Broken Bridge” with Captain Livingstone, Melody hears unexpected laughter and applause. She turns to see Jane lingering in the stairwell, and complement Mr. Vincent with a sophisticated assessment of his work. What, another betrayal from her sister?

“La! Jane, you would strip enjoyment from everything with your endless examinations.” Melody picked her fan up from the side table and flicked it open; the sharp rattle as the fan opened expressed her irritation far beyond the sweet tone of her voice.

While promoting Shades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal handed out modern day laser-cut wooden replicas of this staple of a woman’s Regency Era apparel. It sits on our nightstand now, a reminder of when my wife and I met her.

When my wife occasionally uses the fan, I wonder if she's attempting to tell me something. Would it be impolite to ask her? Or should I just ignore it, even if I appear insensitive? One thing's for sure. Regardless of the state of familiarity we enjoy, I don’t want to be a modern day Mr. Collins.

Dragon Dave

Related Internet Links
Regency Era Fans
Language of the Fan

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