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Book Review Roundup: Regency Romances, Mundane & Fantastical

“Mary, Countess of Plymouth” by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1817. This portrait is in the Legion of Honor museum here in SF and a friend once told me Countess Mary reminded her of me!

“Mary, Countess of Plymouth” by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1817. This portrait is in the Legion of Honor museum here in SF and a friend once told me Countess Mary reminded her of me!

Life update: I am currently two months into the Hackbright Academy software engineering bootcamp for women, working on a web app that will help historical-fiction authors identify possible linguistic anachronisms by comparing their work to a corpus of public-domain classic fiction. My app should be publicly deployed and usable within two weeks — I will let you know!

Hackbright encouraged us to design apps that speak to our personal interests. So, even though I’m entering a new-to-me-field (tech and computer science), this shows that I’m still the same old Marissa: still interested in language, literature, and history, though now thinking about how the vast power of modern computers can be harnessed to help make even better art.

The initial proof-of-concept for my app was limited to comparing modern-day Regency romances to Jane Austen’s six novels. Of course, as a diligent app developer, that meant I had to read some recent-ish Regency romances and select sample passages to use when testing/validating my app. Nice work if you can get it!

Shades of Milk and Honey (Glamourist Histories, #1)Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jane Austen said that the best subject for a novel was “3 or 4 families in a country village.” In Shades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal takes that formula and adds magic. Her milieu is Austen’s landed-gentry milieu; her characters and concerns all have their roots in Austen. For instance, just like Sense and Sensibility , this book centers on a self-denying, scrupulous woman with a flirtatious, overly emotional younger sister. The only difference is that in Kowal’s version of Regency England, people of good taste study “glamour": the art of manipulating the ether to create pretty or entertaining illusions.

This all sounded like it could be quite charming, but what impressed me most about this book is its thematic depth and coherence. Glamour is an illusion-based magic that can delight the eye, or deceive the unwary, or conceal embarrassing truths, or hint at hidden subtexts. As such, its presence in the story allows for new angles on Austen’s favorite themes: social status, secrecy and discretion, and how to tell the difference between real merit and superficial attraction.

I also appreciate that the book manages to be feminist without having the female characters behave or speak in anachronistic “kickass” ways. By contrasting Jane the talented amateur with Mr. Vincent the professional glamourist, Kowal subtly points out one of the ways that Regency society was unfair to women. Every “accomplished” woman was expected to have mastered arts like painting and singing, but male artists were the ones who got the chance to earn money and renown from their work. The conversations between Jane and Mr. Vincent touch on many fascinating questions about the nature of artistic creation and whether women like Jane—“good girls,” dutiful daughters—can also be great artists.

Of course, Jane Austen herself was both a dutiful daughter and a great artist. Austen’s own writing is so practical-minded that I don’t know what she’d make of this book’s fantasy elements; but I do think she would approve of its moral dimension, and that is a far greater compliment.

Bonus: Mary Robinette Kowal (who won the Nebula Award for The Calculating Stars the same weekend I was reading Shades of Milk and Honey!) has blogged about her desire to make her Regency-fantasy novels relatively free of linguistic anachronisms. She even compiled a list of every word Jane Austen used and employed it as a spell-checking dictionary. That’s one reason some friends recommended Kowal’s books to me when I mentioned I was developing this app—Kowal is exactly the kind of scrupulous historical fiction author that my project is intended for, and I think I’ve implemented it in a less clunky way than having to make a custom spell-check dictionary!

The BanishmentThe Banishment by Marion Chesney
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was looking to read some Regency romances and Marion Chesney came recommended by a friend. From several Chesney choices at the library, I picked The Banishment because it was the first in a series, I like stories about big families of sisters, and there was a character in it named “Stoppard.” As it turns out, this is definitely a literary in-joke: there’s a plot point in here about a disagreeable man who wants to tear up a beautiful English garden and replace it with fake ruins and a hermit, just as in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia .

That’s about as clever as it gets, though, and overall I was pretty disappointed. The heroine, Isabella, is naïve and entitled, but without the charm of Jane Austen’s Emma. One of Isabella's suitors is perfect, with a delightful (if ultra-stereotypical) Irish aunt; her other suitor is vulgar, with a horrible mother – there’s no complexity to her dilemma. Worst of all, there aren’t any interesting or endearing scenes between the six sisters, and several of the younger girls lack any personality at all. It seems clear that Chesney’s plan is to devote one book to each sister’s love story, but her lack of interest in characterizing them in Book One means that I don’t really care about reading the rest of the series.