The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
Katherine Tegen Books, June 2017
Reviewed from hardcover
(Note: some spoilers ahead, so tread carefully)
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue has been getting a fair amount of popular attention this year, and rightly so! A New York Times bestseller with four starred reviews and a delightful amount of fanfiction, Mackenzi Lee’s sophomore novel is by turns heartbreaking and hilarious, liberating and life-affirming.
Long story short (and, clocking in at 500 pages, it is a long story), Gentleman’s Guide follows white (teenage) gentleman Monty who, after being expelled from Eaton, is strongarmed into a chaperoned Grand Tour across Europe in preparation for taking over his father’s estate. He’s forced to bring along his bookish sister, Felicity, for part of the journey, and the only upside of which he can conceive is that his best friend/biggest crush, Percy, is joining him on his Tour. After a roguish incident at Versaille goes awry and Monty accidentally steals something of great value, the trio are forced on the run in a journey that, as Monty describes it in a meta moment, is actually “an adventure novel instead of a Tour” (491).
First off, I’m going to just get this out of the way: I love this book. Like, a whole lot. Lee was a classmate of mine in grad school, but even if I didn’t know her, I would still think this book is superb. There’s a ton going on in this book–it’s busy, and as the trio run from city to city (to pirate ship) at a breakneck speed, so do we. But there’s also so much to dig into with the characters and their identities. As Lee acknowledges in her author’s note, “the history of sexuality is tricky to study and trickier to write about, because the concept of sexuality itself is a modern one” (511). Despite this, Lee does justice to this topic and more. She draws her characters’ intersectional identities with care and attention.
Monty is white man, economically privileged, and as openly bisexual as possible in an era and society in which the word “bisexual” didn’t exist and “sodomy” was criminal. He has a strong sense of self-loathing thanks to his father’s verbal and physical abuse, and he primarily copes through flirtatious bravado, an over-reliance on alcohol, and frequently sleeping with both men and women. Yet he also has a strong sense of the ways in which his sexuality is important to him, as can be seen in this (claaasssicc) exchange between him and Felicity:
‘Oh yes, am I a sodomite. Well, I’ve been with lads, so . . . yes.’
She purses her lips, and I wish I hadn’t been so forthright. ‘If you stop, Father might not be so rough on you, you know.’
‘Oh my, thank you for that earth-shattering wisdom. Can’t believe I didn’t think of that myself.’
‘I’m simply suggesting–’
‘–he might ease up.’
‘Well, I haven’t much choice.’
‘Really?’ She crosses her arms. ‘You don’t have a choice in who you bed?’
‘No, I mean I haven’t much choice in who it is I want to bed.’
‘Of course you do. Sodomy’s a vice–same as drinking or gambling.’
‘Not really. I mean, yes, I enjoy it. And I have certainly abstained from abstinence. But I’m also rather attracted to all the men I kiss. And the ladies as well.’
She laughs, like I’ve made a joke. I don’t. ‘Sodomy has nothing to do with attraction. It’s an act. A sin.’
‘Not for me.’
‘But humans are made to be attracted to the opposite sex. Not the same one. That’s how nature operates.’
‘Does that make me unnatural?’ When she doesn’t reply, I say, ‘Have you ever fancied anyone?’
‘No. But I believe I understand the basic principles of it.’
‘I don’t think you really can until it’s happened to you.’ (236-237)
Monty and Felicity are solidly opposites, including in sexuality. Monty is hyper-allosexual (or maybe just allosexual and he feels hyper-allo because I’m a gray-ace reader?), while Felicity is clearly on the asexual and potentially aromantic spectrum. After she attempts to do some reconnaissance via making out and Monty stumbles upon the situation, they have this exchange:
‘Well, as with any fine art, practice is required. Rome wasn’t built in a day.’ I hope that might make her laugh, but instead she frowns down at the floor. ‘Was it good, at least?’
‘It was . . . wet.’
‘Yes, it’s not the driest of activities.’
‘And uncomfortable. I don’t think I’ll be trying it again.’
‘Information by way of seduction? Or kissing in general?’
‘Kissing gets better.’
‘I don’t think it’s for me. Even if it’s better someday.’
‘Perhaps not. But I think you’ve more in your favor than your skills as a jezebel.’ I nudge my toe against hers until she consents to look up at me, then give her a smile–of the less-annoying variety this time. ‘Far, far better things.’ (303-304)
Here, Monty acknowledges that Felicity’s experience and perspective may be different from his but that her value does not derive from her sexuality. While Lee has since confirmed on several occasions that Felicity (who is getting her own novel next year) is indeed canonically on the ace/aro spectrum, any reader who wants to will have no trouble reading Felicity as the representation they need.
It’s important to note that throughout his first-person narration, Monty says some truly horrid racist and ableist things, particularly to Percy. Percy is a biracial young man raised by his white aristocratic aunt and uncle, a la Dido Elizabeth Belle (Lee cites Belle as direct inspiration), making his social status ungainly in a way different from Monty’s. Unbeknownst to Monty until part-way through their journey, he has also been diagnosed with epilepsy and, for the past two years, been experiencing seizures. I’ve not yet found/read any reviews focusing on the disability representation here, but I feel that consistently Lee presents us with both historical and contemporary variations of ableist ideologies (in both Monty’s desire to find a “cure” and Percy’s family’s plan to place him in an asylum) and, importantly, counters them:
What do you want me to say? Yes, I’m ill. I’m an epileptic–that’s my lot. It isn’t easy and it isn’t very enjoyable but this is what I’ve got to live with. This is who I am, and I don’t think I’m insane. I don’t think I should be locked up and I don’t think I need to be cured of it for my life to be good. But no one seems to agree with me on that, and I was hoping you’d be different, but apparently you think just the same as my family and my doctors and everyone else. (432)
Vitally, in this moment and many others, Monty does check his privilege when called out, really listening and learning while still feeling natural–one of the things that makes the relationship between Monty and Percy so rewarding. Best friends since childhood, the pair are cuddly and handsy and physically comfortable around one another. As Monty so eloquently narrates towards the beginning of their story,
The great tragic love story of Percy and me is neither great nor truly a love story . . . Rather, it is simply the tale of how two people can be important to each other their whole lives, and then, one morning, quite without meaning to, one of them wakes to find that importance has been magnified into a sudden and intense desire to put his tongue in the other’s mouth. (28)
Although readers can see that Percy is clearly as interested in a romantic and sexual relationship with Monty as Monty is with him (their chemistry is OFF THE CHARTS), Monty isn’t so sure, and the will-they-won’t-they feels authentic rather than teasing. All of the characters understand the potential consequences of living in a society that marginalizes some of their identities, and readers feel that weight and impact as well. Additionally, their privilege (each distinct because of their intersecting identities) is never excused by their marginalized identities, and their marginalized identities are never diminished by their privileged ones. Monty spends more time than he or his readers would like saying truly shitty things, but he is always, always called on it. It’s a book that is respectful of its characters and its readers while also managing to be funny and fantastical and kind and true. The end to the trio’s story gives three queer teens in a (mostly) historical fiction setting a happy and hopeful future–and isn’t that just the kind of joyful, liberating queer read we need right now?
There’s so much to dig into with this one–weigh in in the comments below!