Guest Review: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

Yay for another guest review! Let’s welcome Rachel Hope and her review of The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee.

Rachel Hope Cleves is professor of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. She specializes in the history of sexuality and is the author of Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014). When not writing the serious stuff, she also likes to write fiction, and has experience with the challenge of selling bisexual male characters to romance editors, so she is super stoked to see The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue hit the bookstores.

Eighteen year old Henry Montgomery, Viscount of Disley – Monty to his friends – is in love with his best friend Percy Newton, but doesn’t know how to tell him. The date is some time in the 1700s, but the obstacle stopping Monty from making his confession isn’t the unspeakability of his feelings.

This is not a story about the challenges of the “love that dare not speak its name,” as Oscar Wilde’s boyfriend Lord Alfred Douglas once famously put it. Nope, Monty faces a much more universal problem, familiar to many young adult novels. He’s not sure if Percy loves him back.

Initially, Monty doesn’t give Percy much reason to reciprocate. Sure, he’s handsome and flirtatious, but he’s also an irresponsible rake, prone to getting drunk and insulting people. Percy, on the other hand, is the quiet and responsible type. He’s had to be that way, since he’s an illegitimate half-Black orphan being raised by none-too-sympathetic guardians, his aunt and uncle. Despite their differences, the two boys have been best friends since forever, and share an easy physical intimacy that was common among friends in the eighteenth century. Monty and Percy frequently exchange gentle touches, leaving poor Monty in a perpetual state of arousal, but Monty can’t quite will himself to make a move and risk Percy’s friendship.

At the novel’s beginning, Percy and Monty are bidding adieu to their home in England and embarking for the continent. Percy and Monty are going on “The Grand Tour” – a rite of passage for young male aristocrats – before Percy begins law school in Holland and Monty returns to work besides his father, running the estate. They are also accompanied by Mr. Lockwood, a “bear leader” or guide hired by Monty’s father to keep the boys in check during their tour, and by Felicity, Monty’s fifteen year old sister, who must be dropped off at finishing school in Marseilles along the way. Monty can’t wait to get out from under the thumb of his domineering father, who has threatened to disinherit Monty in favor of his new-born younger brother if Monty doesn’t start behaving more responsibly. It’s less clear, initially, what Percy and Felicity hope to get out of the trip. Mysteriously, Felicity is unhappy with being sent to Marseilles, even though she has been begging her parents for further educational opportunities for years.

Without giving away too many spoilers, let it be said that the tour does not go entirely according to plan. Or really anything like according to plan. A trip to Versailles for a royal reception leads Monty to make some very poor choices that anger some highly placed individuals. Monty, Percy, and Felicity end up on the run, without their guardian or their cash. This situation obviously forces Monty to do some serious growing up, such as starting to think about the feelings of other people. He also must reckon with the psychic costs of his father’s harsh upbringing. Meanwhile, Percy is revealed to have hidden vulnerabilities Monty has not previously appreciated, and Felicity is revealed to have hidden strengths that Monty has never recognized.

The trio’s adventures take them to Barcelona, Venice, and the Grecian island of Santorini. There might be highwaymen, alchemists, and pirates encountered along the way. Throughout it all, Monty’s main concern remains his unrequited love for Percy. This love is so strongly drawn it’s palpable. Monty itemizes the features of Percy’s face that he loves the most, and frequently draws up memories of Percy’s past acts of loving friendship and loyalty. Percy is the beating heart of this novel (which importantly features a beating heart, in a slightly supernatural turn that comes late in the book). The reader must have a heart of stone not to fall in love with Percy just like Monty has.

One small critique I would make is that Monty seems sort of a dunce when it comes to judging Percy’s feelings. Perhaps it can be blamed on youth and inexperience – although, Monty has had plenty of sexual experience already. Which points to one of the great strengths of this novel: the author Mackenzi Lee does an excellent job imagining what everyday sexual culture in the eighteenth century was really like – not the sexual system described by the rules in etiquette books, which were prescriptive rather than descriptive, but the sexual life that the rules were intended to rein in.

During the eighteenth century people didn’t identify as “homosexual” (a word invented in 1868) or “heterosexual” (1892). It was a time when elite men like Monty had a lot of sexual privilege to sleep with whom they wanted, even though sex between men was illegal and could be harshly punished. The novel captures this world by describing Monty as attracted to a wide variety of people, female and male. Technically, he would be called “bisexual” (1914) today. But back then, he was just a rake. A rake who has lost his heart to his best friend and needs to find the bravery to tell him how he feels.

This book is touching, sexy, witty, and a fun adventure story. It would be an awesome beachside or poolside read. It takes its history seriously, but also lightly; Monty’s voice is never stilted in an effort to make him sound historical. I’m giving the book an A- rather than an A because I really think Monty could have clued in earlier, if the novel didn’t need an excuse to keep the boys apart. Otherwise, it’s one hundred percent delightful.

This book is available from:
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

June 27, 2017

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