Québec-born Greg Fewer’s flash fiction and reviews have appeared in Cuento Magazine, Lovecraftiana, Monsters: A Dark Drabbles Anthology, Page & Spine, The Sirens Call and Tightbeam, among other publications.
Mackenzi Lee, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue
Mackenzi Lee, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue (Katherine Tegen Books, 2017). ISBN: 9780062382825 (Epub edition); 9780062382801 (hardcover).
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, Mackenzi Lee’s second novel (after This Monstrous Thing ), received a Stonewall Honor for Books in Children’s and Young Adult Literature in 2018. The novel centers on eighteen-year-old Henry (‘Monty’) Montague, his best friend, Percy, and his younger but more mature sister, Felicity. Together, they set out on their ‘grand tour’ of Europe, an ostensibly educational voyage under the watchful eye of their adult guide, Mr Lockwood, in the 1720s. Monty’s authoritarian father, an French aristocrat resident in England, hopes that his son will grow up and shrug off his reputation as a boozing rake so that he can help manage the family estates. He also wants Felicity to go to a French finishing school to learn social etiquette and prepare her for becoming a suitable wife. For Percy, it’s an opportunity to spend a year travelling with his friend before he’s sent off to college in Holland to study law. None of them is happy with their prospective lives after the grand tour – Monty fears his father and is unenthused about working with him, Felicity wants to become a physician and Percy seems reluctant to talk about studying law abroad. Of course, it would mean that Monty and Percy would also see very little of each other afterwards.
So the grand tour – the eighteenth-/early nineteenth-century equivalent of a gap year (but for the well to do) – is an opportunity for the trio to not only broaden their minds before starting their unwanted careers but also to have a last fling of adolescent fun together – and, for Monty, to temporarily escape his father’s overbearing presence. However, they find that under Mr Lockwood’s tutelage, the grand tour is not quite as exciting as they had hoped – until, that is, Monty makes a serious faux pas at a major social event, to the huge embarrassment of his companions. This leads to Mr Lockwood’s decision to bring the tour to an end and to return to England with the boys as soon as Felicity can be dropped off at her finishing school in the south of France.
However, soon afterwards, the trio become separated from their adult guide and encounter highwaymen, a travelling fair, a detour towards Spain, a sea journey and pirates, all while making new friends and undertaking a quest to find a fabulous artefact made by an alchemist.
Meanwhile, the bisexual Monty comes to realize that he’s in love with Percy but he is too fearful of rejection to tell him. Yet, at times, there seems to be the possibility that Percy might have similar feelings for him. This ‘he loves me, he loves me not’ subplot runs through much of the book and had me shouting out loud with exasperation at one point, imploring the boys to just express their feelings for each other! There are moments of intimacy, but nothing is explicit.
We also see the trio mature more, especially Monty, as they are confronted by various dangers and hardships. While having a roguish charm, Monty is very self-centered at the beginning of the tale but gradually begins to comprehend the points of view of others around him as well as recognizing his own skills and shortcomings.
The author’s afterword provides some historical context for various aspects of the story. Lee comments that a number of people had socially acceptable ‘romantic relationships’ (close friendships) with same-sex people and that hostility towards homosexuality had become lax by the early eighteenth century. However, she also knows that, from the 1720s, there was renewed persecution of homosexuals in Britain and that buggery remained a capital offence there for another century. Despite this, the boys don’t fear being outed or even convicted, which seems unlikely to me. Gay sex was illegal where I lived until I was twenty-five. It would be many years later before I would come out to anyone.
Lee places more emphasis on Percy being biracial (his white father seemingly had had a relationship with a black servant or slave on his estate in Barbados) and he experiences both direct and indirect prejudice during the grand tour. Perhaps Lee thought that over-emphasizing these negative aspects of eighteenth-century reality would have made the story bleaker and therefore less enjoyable to read.
The book is, after all, a fantasy – hence the alchemical artefact – though the author’s use of an historical figure as the villain could also be seen as a form of alternate history. In my opinion, it would have been more plausible for this character to have had a fictional henchman assume this role – with the latter’s employer unaware (officially at least) of what he was doing.
I loved the period vocabulary, which crops up here and there, even if it had me keeping a dictionary to hand! Who nowadays encounters terms like bezoar, clemming, jack-tar, posset, swain or xebec? Their use adds historical authenticity to the tale while also teaching something new about the past to modern readers.
A well-paced, historical coming-of-age adventure, told through the sometimes flawed, but entertaining, and (usually) well-meaning Monty, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is a delight to read!