In Kelly Jones’s Murder, Magic, and What We Wore, 16-year-old Annis Whitworth decides that the best way to solve her father’s mysterious death is to become a spy. But to Britain’s War Office, an upper-crust society girl traipsing around Regency-era London with no training and a personal vendetta is more of a liability than an asset.
That assessment doesn’t change, even when Annis realizes she possesses a rare, magical talent for dressmaking. After all, she introduced herself by marching into the War Office, bold as brass, recklessly dropping code words, and laying plans bare.
So Annis takes matters into her own hands, determined to forestall employment as a governess and to prove her value as a spy. A talent for spy work and subtlety do not emerge fully formed in her efforts. In fact, she’s downright dangerous in her hard-headed flailing to solve this mystery.
More’s the pity, as her sartorial magic would be eminently useful for covert operations. Annis is a glamour modiste, or dressmaker who can enchant a garment’s color, style, and fabric. Glamours, or magically enhanced clothes, can even generate a mild blending-into-the-background effect.
“A glamour, people said, could make a person unrecognizable – could make them disappear, even,” Annis explains. “A glamour could show the cinder girl’s noble heart and inner beauty (and, apparently, cause people to ignore the kinds of smudges one gets when one has been sitting on the hearth all day sewing).”
At the same time, Annis learns that all her father’s money has disappeared. This sudden impoverishment necessitates a change of lifestyle. Annis, her savvy Aunt Cassia, and their maid relocate from their luxurious London quarters to a cold, dingy cottage in the village of Flittingsworth. There, Annis establishes an alias as Madame Martine, mysterious French glamour modiste, in the hopes that she can bring in money while sneaking about doing spy work.
Danger! Drama! Dresses! What a plot, right?
And yet, this feels like the Diet Sprite of Regency romps. You’d be remiss to expect much more than a gulp of sweet, transparent bubbles.
“What We Wore” is herky-jerky, clumsy, full of fits and starts, but charming in a way that feels as sweetly ingenuous as Annis (and just as unpredictably so). At the drop of an elegant hat, Annis pivots from agony to arrogance, from ability to asininity.
Grandly assuring herself and others that she can navigate smoothly among spies and double-dealing diplomats, promising that she can make a fortune with a harebrained modiste scheme, Annis blunders about as more of an obstacle than a heroine. Now there’s a glamour of a narrative concept – getting the reader to focus on the distraction rather than the important part.
For my money, the real heroine is Millie O’Leary, the gutsy Irish maid who has survived tragedy and trauma. Millie is humble, sharp, and kind. She refuses to back down in the face of danger, and it’s her bottomless well of knowledge that sees the Whitworths through many a dilemma.
Unlike the Jane Austen and Sherlock Holmes novels that have clearly inspired Jones, in which there are many plot threads but readers never lose the main goal, the plot threads in “What We Wore” twist into one large hopeless snarl. I genuinely didn’t know, even halfway through the book, which one represented the overarching narrative.
It both helps and hinders that said plot snarl is decorated with cheeky, preposterous names. Once situated in Flittingsworth, Annis flits lightly between the likes of Lady Prippingforth, Lady Dustingham, Miss Brattlesby, Miss Faversham, and Misters Harrington and Hustlesmith. Mo’ syllables, mo’ Regency flair, I guess.
Jones leaves tiny treasures for readers to find, including hints at other types of magic. At one point, Annis barters for a silver teapot that proves to be a work of metal magic; merely holding its handle causes the liquid within to heat up.
Keep a weather eye out for Jones’s sneakily beautiful passages. Upon awakening for the first time in dismal, provincial Flittingsworth, Annis realizes her glittering London life is now over.
“I picked up the gossip column I’d brought from home,” she sighs. “Turning the sheet to the early dawn light, I began to read, feeling as though I were peering through glass into another world, an aquarium or some such thing, beautiful and strange and impossible to touch.”
Let’s put “What We Wore” in terms that Miss Annis Whitworth herself would appreciate:
If this novel is a ball gown, then its construction is slapdash. The seams pucker. The hem is uneven. The embroidery is marred with dropped stitches, and some sections feel rushed. What’s more, at almost every turn, the accessories outshine the garment itself so you don’t know where to focus.
And yet, in the candlelight, if you tilt your head and squint, the effect is beguiling. While nodding off on the carriage ride home, you’ll likely forget the technical hiccups, remembering instead the way the lady’s jewels twinkled and a reticule’s beading caught the light.
A glamour, indeed. Just don’t pull at any loose threads you may notice upon closer inspection.