So, you know, second verse, same as the first.
But actually, probably worse.
Shades of Milk and Honeyis very much what would Jane Austen have written if there was a half-assed little bit of magic in the mix. The half-assed magic is called glamour, and even though it’s understood as a woman’s art, Milk and Honey is very much about a growly, dickish artist-type dude who is nevertheless famous for performing the woman’s art of glamour, and how the plain-but-gifted gentry lady doesn’t even understand she loves him. (Spoiler alert, but not really, because c’mon.)
The trouble with glamour is that it never feels like an integrated facet of this alt-Regency society, and therefore the story never feels very alt-Regency. However well-described the glamour is – and it is – glamour ends up seeming inconsequential and frivolous, which is an unfortunate way to write a magical woman’s art. I could see dozens of uses of glamour other than tarting up the gentry – including military applications – and it really didn’t make much sense that glamour was both a) a woman’s art and b) all the famous glamourists mentioned were men. The world seemed inconsistent.
Glamour in Glass starts where Shades of Milk and Honey ends, with Jane and Vincent married and practicing glamour for a living, and as a couple. It’s interesting to see an alt-Regency story depict marriage, because so many of the period stories end at the wedding. (Certainly, all of Austen’s major novels end there, and she’s the obvious hat-tip in the first novel.) And Glamour in Glassseems to address some of the criticisms laid out above. Jane and Vincent go to Belgium during Napoleon’s brief sojourn on Elba before the he escapes and stirs shit up again. Again, the alt in the history is nonexistent for the most part, but we do see a lot more of the potential uses for glamour, and when Napoleon makes his escape and starts marching toward the coast (spoiler alert? srsly, no), you get to see a lot more action than your typical Austen novel, and the potential non-domestic uses for glamour are more fully explored. (Still, that glamour can record sound is never looked at once, and why?)
Other problems are not addressed at all, or get worse; that glamour keeps being referred to as a “woman’s art” being the biggest one. Jane and Vincent are visiting a famous glamourist friend in Belgium, who is also running a school of sorts for glamourists. Most of these people are male. Vincent tells the story of how his earl father disowned him because he was a glamourist, and it’s implied that the earl thinks being a glamourist means you’re gay. This is understood to be a pretty common opinion. Then we briefly meet a “folk glamourist” – who is a woman – and her art is dismissed as crude. Isn’t glamour a folk art? Aren’t the folk in the this case explicitly said to be women?
If we take glamour to be like music, then any woman of a certain class would be expected to know it, but certainly many or most professional musicians would be dudes, and that wouldn’t be a threat to their masculinity. A music analogy would work. But I think the best folk art analog is embroidery (or any textile craft, like dress-making) – practiced almost exclusively by women, and mostly anonymously (or commercially.) I simply do not understand these men – many from the upper classes – who are given accolades for something that is a “woman’s art”. Nice dress you made there, Vincent, are you going to wear it now? Accessorize with a sampler?
The real problem here is Jane. Boy, I really don’t like her, and I don’t like the things said through her. Now, I am completely cognizant that the opinions that a character espouses are not the same as the take-home message of the book, or of the author, blablah. I’m not expecting Jane to be all magically modern in her opinions, but I am getting sick to death of main character ladies who humble-brag about how plain-but-smart they are, and cut down every other woman around them. Apparently, every women in England is either a whore or vapid, and on the Continent, either a whore or a spy for Napoleon. Good job, Jane. You win the Girl Olympics, and get to take cigars with the men as a reward at the end, so’iz you don’t have to hang out with the ladies who are dumb and boring.
And then we get into a pregnancy plot which similarly makes me itch. Again, I get that this is Regency England, and their medical understandings are psuedo-scientific at best, but when it’s put forward that women can’t do glamour while pregnant because it might cause miscarriage, I really wanted to know if this was bullshit or not. I’ll totally accept it, but in this Regency setting, with all the leaches and women-can’t-ride-astride-while-pregnant (because why? whatever, Freud), I would like just a minute more of internal push against this idea. I can roll my eyes when Jane isn’t allowed up on a horse because I know that’s bs, but I can’t assess the truth of whether glamour really is a danger during pregnancy. Jane feels sick when she tries to perform glamour before she knows she’s up the duff, sure, but I absolutely couldn’t abide dairy in my first trimester, and that didn’t mean cheese was dangerous. It just meant it tripped off a very capricious morning sickness, which had vanished by the second trimester, where I absolutely stuffed myself with cheese to no ill effects.
If it is real, why has Kowal created this magical system which is understood to be for the ladies which is also stupidly impossible for women to work? While they are in a condition that literally only women can be in? Maybe this is a subtle check on the idea of gendered arts at all, but, no, I’m totally not feeling that given the general thrust of the text. (Remember: whores, spies, vapid or Jane are your options, if you are a woman, and you win if you get to hang with the boys.) Glamour ends up being one of those dumb fucking magical systems which exists to cause impediments for the main characters and not much else. Of course Jane is going to have to perform glamour at some point, and the results are similarly ambiguous. Wtf are you saying? Sloppy, sloppy.
So, like Shades of Milk and Honey, I ended up with Glamour in Glasswondering what the point was. And if the point is what I think it is, I’m going to be piiiissed. Unlike Milk and Honey, the action of the plot and prose read more like The Scarlet Pimpernel than any Austen, and I have very limited success with Orczy. I think Georgette Heyer gets mentioned in the same breath as the Glamourist Histories, but I think that’s a bad comparison. Heyer is a lot more fun, to put it baldly, and while her plots and characters are often understood to be frivolous, there isn’t this Jane in the middle judging everyone for having a good time. Hell, even Austen, who was often barbarous to the ridiculous, shot her mockery through with kindness and understanding.
This afternoon I forced my husband to turn off some stupid comedy about two supposedly lovable assholes who were mocking an ex-girlfriend while she was absolutely correctly telling them off. This movie is going to be about these dicks winning, I yelled. I don’t want to see them win. I don’t want to see Jane win either, and that’s my problem with this book, and this series. I don’t dislike her because she’s plain, or kind of a dishrag, or talented – I’m not jealous of her competence; take notes here, heroine writers – I dislike her because she’s a boring snob. Sometimes a cigar is more than a cigar, Jane, and that you’ll slut-shame everyone to take one with the guys doesn’t endear you. I’ll be over here with all the other vapid whore spies, because they are way more interesting and way less judgmental.