Reading The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue was the most fun I’ve had reading in quite a while. It reminded me what I love about YA fiction and well following Monty, Percy, and Felicity around their Grand Tour on the Continent in the eighteenth century is full of romance, mystery, and pirates—excuse me privateers–and was a blast and a half. Lee made the eighteenth century (the 1700s) accessible, and each of the characters feels like full people.
And before the cut, I need to mention that Monty is very bisexual, and this is not a spoiler because from the get he tells us how in love with Percy he is and later we see him go on jaunts with the ladies. Monty is bisexual! And while that term is not ever used Lee explains at the end of the book that that choice was because the term didn’t exist until the 1800s, and so I can respect that decision. But we’ve got a bi-character ladies and gents, and my bisexual-ass is extra excited about it.
Now, back to your regularly scheduled reviewing, under the cut of course.
As stated at the top this book follows Monty, Percy, and Felicity on a Grand Tour of the Continent, which is something people with a certain amount of wealth sent their children on in the 1700s. Monty was expelled from his boarding school (for sodomy) and this is his last chance to prove to his father that he has grown up enough to inherit the family wealth and place in society. Percy is his best friend, who is biracial and was raised by his Aunt and Uncle after his father brought him back after a trip to Northern Africa, and Felicity is his younger sister who is on her way to finishing school in France and decidedly does not want to go to finishing school as she has been reading medical research disguised as romance novels.
Lee takes these three characters, each with very divisive obstacles in eighteenth-century high society, and allows them to grow. Monty is the narrator and so as he changes and grows up, his perception of Felicity and Percy changes. He begins to see that his choices have consequences that are farther reaching than himself and that this Tour can’t just be his last chance to flirt unabashedly with Percy. This story is fun and has an excellent bisexual protagonist. Honestly reading him trying to explain his sexuality to his sister is one of my favorite conversations in the book:
“Monty: Have you ever fancied anyone?
Felicity: No. But I believe I understand the basic principles of it.
M: I don’t think you really can until it’s happened to you
F: Have you?
M: Have I what?
F: Ever fancied someone?
M: Oh. Well, yes
M: Also yes” (237).
I just feel like it sums everything up so succinctly. And it is important to the plot, but it isn’t the whole plot. We don’t watch his sexual discovery, there is no “Am I? Am I not?” moment, because this is already who he is, and he’s accepted this about himself. Bisexuality isn’t being used as a stepping stone from straight to gay, Monty likes girls and lads and is going to suffer his father’s hatred because it isn’t a choice, and most importantly, he doesn’t die! I knew going into this review that the majority of it would be focused on Monty’s sexuality because bi-representation is important and often not great. But this story does have other very strong points.
As mentioned in the beginning, Percy is biracial and despite England no longer being a direct participant in the slave trade, his race does come up and the difficulties of being a black man in the 1700s are addressed. While in France a woman approaches him saying: “I’m very involved in your cause…The abolition of the slave trade…How long since you came from Africa?” In these moments, the reader is reminded that racism exists, that Percy is not white. Percy is not the only black character in the novel, Lee doesn’t whitewash history. The pirates that rescue our trio are ex-slaves sailing on the ship Freedom, trying to get a privateering license so that they could sail the seas as merchants and not have to unsuccessfully pretend to be pirates.
Throughout their adventure Felicity provides a much-needed counter to Monty, maintaining a cool-head in times of crisis and pointing out how selfish Monty has been in throwing away his opportunities that haven’t been, and won’t be, provided to her or Percy. She also has my favorite line in the book: “Ladies haven’t the luxury of being squeamish about blood,” (264). She wants to become a medical doctor fights against the societal obstacles in her way to attend lectures and read textbooks.
Recommendation: If you are looking for something fun to read. Read this. If you are looking for actual bi-representation. Read this. If you want to adventure through the continent and on the high seas. Read this. Trust me, it’s got a bit of everything and you probably won’t be disappointed.