The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy

ladysguideThe Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee
Katherine Tegen Books, Oct 2018
Reviewed from ARC

Plot Summary: In this sequel to 2018 Stonewall Honor The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, Felicity Montague knows that marriage isn’t for her. What she wants, fiercely, is to study medicine–an ambition that is met with rejection and ridicule in 18th-century England. One last lead takes her to Germany, where a physician she admires is seeking an assistant for an expedition. The journey tangles her fate with those of two women: Sim, an Algerian Muslim possibly-pirate, and Johanna, her estranged childhood best friend who is due to marry the physician. Secrets come to light, and Felicity is thrown into a globe-traversing quest that brings her closer to Sim and Johanna. With patriarchy-smashing aplomb, the novel celebrates the power of women working together against the societal forces that would rather see them crushed.

Queer Rep: Felicity is an immediately recognizable character: headstrong, feisty, scornful of all things feminine, and adverse to romance. She could be the heroine of so many love stories that rely on “not like other girl”-isms. Instead, with Lee’s remarkable skill at flipping tropes on their head, Felicity’s disdain for femininity becomes the means by which to interrogate internalized misogyny, and her indifference to romance is rendered a real, integral part of her identity. While the words “aromantic” and “asexual” are never used (it’s the 1700s, after all), an understanding of the validity of aro-ace spectrum identities clearly informs Felicity’s character.

Descriptions of Felicity’s disinterest in romance and physical intimacy are overt. And, delivered in Felicity’s period-specific, sharp-witted voice, they’re also funny: kissing, for example, is “the oral equivalent of a handshake” and like “being stamped like a ledger” (16). In a heart-to-heart with Sim, Felicity contends with the question of how she can know she doesn’t like sex without having tried it, saying, “‘I’ve never drunk octopus ink, but I don’t feel the need to. Or like I’m missing anything in not having tasted it’” (316). Felicity is allowed to be the expert on her own experience, and those closest to her accept her.  

There’s affirmation galore here, and it also comes from the weight given to nonromantic, nonsexual interpersonal connections. At times, Felicity worries that she will always be somehow apart from other people, but this concern proves unfounded in the face of her richly developed friendships with Johanna and Sim. There is so much hope and inspiration to be had in seeing an aro-ace character finding exactly what she needs to live a fulfilling life outside of societal expectations. 

Importantly, while Felicity’s queer identity is consistently validated, she isn’t above reproach. Rather, she is surrounded with characters whose viewpoints complicate her own and make evident her biases and ignorance. It’s through Johanna’s influence that Felicity recognizes the patriarchal attitudes that feed her sense of superiority over other women, and Sim’s experiences with racism and real-talk about colonialism draw attention to the privilege Felicity has as a white English woman. Lady’s Guide embodies this artful counterbalance in its conception as a sequel, too: it functions as a sort of dialogic response to Monty’s queer allosexuality, carving out an equally redemptive place for other forms of queerness in this quasi-historical landscape Lee has crafted.

Final Word: If Gentleman’s Guide was worthy of its Stonewall accolades, Lady’s Guide may well be even better. Will the fact that it’s a sequel to a book that has already received award acknowledgment impact its chances? Whatever the committee decides, this is a depiction of aro-ace identity that deserves celebration.

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