Mary Robinette Kowal's Favorite Scene From Shades of Milk and Honey

Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey, was awarded RT’s fifth Seal of Excellence. From Kowal’s realistic Regency England -- with the subtle addition of magic -- to her pitch-perfect Jane Austen-esq voice, the author’s dedication to world building shines through the story. Now Kowal shares her favorite scene from the novel.

To set up this scene a bit, Mr. Vincent, a professional glamourist, and Jane have met on three other occasions prior to this scene and have not gotten along. In the preceding chapter, they have been pressed to create a tableaux vivant as a way of entertaining the various guests at a strawberry picking party.

In the Regency there were various parlour games to provide amusement to a fairly board aristocracy. One of them involved dressing up in costume and standing in a tableaux which the other guests could admire as a sort of living painting. One did not act or speak, just posed. I took that idea and adapted it for glamour.

Instead of needing costumes, one simply uses the ability to weave light to completely transform oneself. This would lead to more spontaneity about performing a tableaux vivant than the costumed version, allowing one to take it from the parlour to a hilltop picnic.

I also reasoned that one might practice certain costume illusions to be ready when the request came. Learning a complex pattern of glamour is somewhat akin to learning a complex piece of music. The first time it would be very slow and limping but with practice one could create a fairly intricate glamour with speed.

In the scene that concept plays out like this:

[Jane said,] “Have you one prepared? I can pretend to lend my support, or—”

He smirked. “You are quite good, Miss Ellsworth; I have no doubt that you have a tableau vivant of your own prepared.”

“And you are a faster glamourist than I, so can follow my lead.” She took his meaning. “Could you create an Apollo to my Daphne?”

As the scene progresses they try to one up each other, in very demure ways of course. I love the rivalry between them. This is the first time since she was a child that Jane has met a glamourist who is better than she is and she feels the constant need to prove herself.

The other thing that I enjoy about this scene is their argument about the nature of art. I'll tell you frankly that I am in Jane's camp when she says, “I have always thought that an educated audience could more fully appreciate the effort which went into creating a piece of art.”

The harder character to write was Mr. Vincent who believes that "Illusions should be entrancing without someone looking behind the scenes to see how they are made."

This argument about approach is a common one among puppeteers (my day job). While I was writing this novel, I was working on a television show called LazyTown, filmed in Iceland. One of the other puppeteers was firmly in Mr. Vincent's camp and found the fact that I blogged about my job to be a breach of the world he was trying to create. It was an interesting series of conversations and was very much in my mind when I wrote this scene. Writing Mr. Vincent gave me a much greater understanding for my colleague's viewpoint.

Ironically, I much prefer going to see films or plays blind, but given a choice between watching a rehearsal or watching a finished play would choose the rehearsal almost every time. I think that when I'm there to be transported, I want the surprise and to sink into the story. But the opportunity to learn from observing the process is very alluring.

Meanwhile, I hope you have enjoyed having the veil of glamour lifted a bit from this scene.

- Mary Robinette Kowal

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Excerpt from Chapter Seven of Shades of Milk and HoneyNymph on the Hill 

Trying to mask her dismay and astonishment, Jane rose and went to where Mr. Vincent stood by his paints. So quickly that she could not see him do it, he raised and thinned a fold of glamour. She was at first uncertain as to what he had done because she could still see the party, but it became apparent from their actions that they could not see her. Then he cast another fold around them and the sounds of the party vanished. Both tricks were astounding enough in themselves, but the speed and ease with which he did them was more so. Even if Jane could understand how he had quieted the world around them, she could never match his speed.

“My apologies, Mr. Vincent, I—”

“They cannot hear us, Miss Ellsworth.” He shrugged, rolling his shoulders under his coat. “You need not be civil to me.”

Stunned, Jane stopped speaking and stared at him. “I do not understand your meaning.”

His jaw clenched and he seemed about to say something, but the moment passed and his anger subsided. “What tableau vivant shall we do?”

“No. No, you may not start such a conversation and pretend that you did not. Tell me my offense so that I might apologize.” Even as she said this, Jane remembered her brusque conversation with him on the lawn at Robinsford Abbey. “I am sorry that I did not take the time to view your painting when we last saw one another.”

He snorted and shook his head. “I was grateful that you did not, but your behaviour today shows that is not your usual wont.”

“My behaviour!”

“I am a glamourist, Miss Ellsworth. I create illusions in an effort to transport my viewers to another place. So I do not like it when people expose how my illusions work. Each person who looks at what I do takes my work away from me.”

“But you are teaching Miss Dunkirk. How can you complain about others knowing your secrets if you are teaching them?”

To her surprize, he lifted his hand and pressed it to the bridge of his nose, squeezing his eyes shut. “You mistake my meaning. I should learn to keep my thoughts to myself, as I rarely express what I mean.” He sighed. “It is not the knowledge of glamour which I guard; it is the art created by it. Illusions should be entrancing without someone looking behind the scenes to see how they are made. Would you enjoy a play where you saw the mechanicals exposed? For me, it is much the same. I want the illusion to remain whole. If someone thinks about how it is done, then I have failed in my art.”

At last Jane apprehended his meaning and how she had transgressed at the ball and then again here, but her own principles were different. “I have always thought that an educated audience could more fully appreciate the effort which went into creating a piece of art.”

“The effort, yes, but I want to transport the audience to another place; I do not want them to think of effort or technique.”

Jane was silent. She did not agree with him, but knowing now his feelings on the matter, she resolved to avoid off ending him in the future. “I can enjoy both, Mr. Vincent. I assure you, your art is compelling. I nonetheless apologize for looking behind the curtain, as it were.”

He regarded her for a moment, then looked away, his face expressionless. Without accepting her apology, he said, “They must wonder why we are taking so long to prepare the tableau vivant.”

Jane started, having forgotten entirely why she stood, seemingly alone, with this man. She looked at the silent party, who had begun gesturing animatedly in their direction.

“Have you one prepared? I can pretend to lend my support, or—”

He smirked. “You are quite good, Miss Ellsworth; I have no doubt that you have a tableau vivant of your own prepared.”

“And you are a faster glamourist than I, so can follow my lead.” She took his meaning. “Could you create an Apollo to my Daphne?”

He glanced at the laurel tree arcing over them and said, “An apt choice.”

Quickly they sketched out the play. Then, working faster than she knew she could, Jane tugged folds over her to create a mask of Daphne, and the delicate garments such an ephemeral nymph would wear as she fled the sun god. She also worked one set of folds into a slipknot, intending to create a surprize at the end of this tableau vivant. Mr. Vincent might be faster than she, but Jane would prove her worth as a glamourist.

She sensed the ether trembling beside her as Mr. Vincent worked Apollo into being. When all was ready, he untied the folds that masked them from view.

As soon as Daphne was brought into view, the spectators gasped in delight. It was only when her friends began to glance at Melody did Jane realize that, in her haste, she had modeled the figure on her sister. Daphne’s golden hair tumbled in the same ringlets, and although her cornflower blue eyes were wide with apprehension and each element was purified for the glamour, they undeniably had their base in Melody’s form.

Appearing taller than he was, and glowing with the light of the sun, Mr. Vincent embodied Apollo, his hands outstretched to reach for the frightened nymph. As their guests studied the tableau vivant with exquisite fascination, Jane released the slipknot she held, and hidden folds slid around her into a laurel tree. She was gratified by the gasps of surprize and pleasure from their viewers. It was no small thing to change a detailed glamour so smoothly.

Then, to her surprize, Apollo dropped to his knees and embraced the laurel tree, weeping with such conviction that Jane very nearly released the folds masking her within the laurel tree; but to have done so would have made the unbidden intimacy more apparent, so she bore it until the party’s applause indicated it was time to end the tableau vivant.

Mr. Vincent stood and became himself, his broad chest heaving from the effort of maintaining the folds while he was moving. As Jane dropped the folds masking her in the laurel tree, she strove to pretend that the trembling in her hands and the shortness of her breath was from the glamour.

Nothing could explain away the flush on her cheeks, though.

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For another behind-the-scenes look at Shades of Milk and Honey, be sure to check out RT's in-depth interview with the author here >>