Title: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue
Series Title: Montague Siblings
Author: Mackenzi Lee
Date Added: August 18, 2018
Date Started: September 24, 2018
Date Finished: October 16, 2018
Reading Duration: 22 days
Genre: Fantasy, Low Fantasy, Romance, Historical Fiction, Young Adult (YA), LGBTQ+
Henry “Monty” Montague was born and bred to be a gentleman, but he was never one to be tamed. The finest boarding schools in England and the constant disapproval of his father haven’t been able to curb any of his roguish passions—not for gambling halls, late nights spent with a bottle of spirits, or waking up in the arms of women or men.
But as Monty embarks on his Grand Tour of Europe, his quest for a life filled with pleasure and vice is in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.
Still it isn’t in Monty’s nature to give up. Even with his younger sister, Felicity, in tow, he vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt that spans across Europe, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.
CW: Contains discussions of homophobia, biphobia, racism, sexism/misogyny, ableism, and physical abuse
“Because I want you to know…that there is life after survival.”
Henry Montague or Monty, as he prefers to be called, has been allowed one last hurrah in the form of a Grand Tour of Europe by his dickhead dad before being forced to run the fore mentioned’s estates in England on pain of being disinherited. Prior to the birth of his little brother, dubbed the “Goblin,” Monty’s status, though unwanted, was still secure as the earl had no one else to pass his title to, his only other issue being a daughter, Felicity. Even if she could inherit, the house wouldn’t remain “in the family” insofar as she’d take the name of the man to whom she was wed.
It’s a similar situation to Samwell Tarly in ASOIAF with his father except “at least” Monty’s father isn’t threatening to kill him, only cut him off if he’s found “mucking around with boys again” (Lord Montague has no problem beating the shit out of him, though, but we’ll get to that).
“The Grand Tour” was a period of foreign travel commonly undertaken by gentlemen to finish off their education, popular from the mid-17th century until the end of the 18th when the Napoleonic Wars stopped most foreign travel. It was extremely exclusive, only undertaken by the very rich e.g. the sons of aristocracy e.g. Monty, due to travel being both difficult and expensive. An added benefit of the Grand Tour, that our crafty protagonist is very well aware of and why he’s so anxious to go in the first place, is it allowed young gentlemen to sow their wild oats with as little inconvenience to their families as possible. No need to worry about any illegitimate children if your precious heir got their jollies across borders…unless of course the mother dies and you’re forced to bring an infant back, but we’ll get to that later, too.*
It’s immediately established that Monty is bisexual as well as a bit of a rake.
“For a disorienting moment, it’s unclear whether we’ve slept together or simply slept together.”
He’s also in love with his best friend Percy Newton, a half-Barbadian orphan who’s a ward of his aunt and uncle after his father promptly died not long after returning home with him.
*Told you we’d get to that.
It’s initially subtle how differently Percy is treated, because we’re only seeing things through Monty’s point of view, but once the trio reach Versailles, it’s…jarring to say the least (or would be to anyone who’s never experienced racism). And I did say trio as Felicity, Monty’s sister, joins them despite her brother’s annoyance. There are quite a few things that are skewed due to the novel being filtered through Monty. When you only have one perspective, it can’t be completely reliable, so Felicity isn’t the shrewish harridan her brother makes her out to be, but on another note, it’s not quite clear whether or not Percy likes Monty back. He not only has to be careful to avoid emotional damage and potential shunning if his BFF doesn’t reciprocate, but he could also be persecuted for being with a man to say nothing of how that would pile onto the oppression Percy already faces, something Monty is embarrassingly ignorant about.
When the future earl is discovered with his pants down in the wrong lady’s chamber, both Felicity and Percy point out the latter would’ve been drawn and quartered if he’d been caught in such an act, and Monty does not get it. He tries to put on the onus on Percy for “not standing up for himself” and “letting people walk all over him because his skin is a bit dark,” because Monty knows fuck all about how racism works.
“…because I’m not the light-skinned son of an earl so I haven’t the luxury of talking back to everyone who speaks ill of me. But I don’t need you to rescue me.”
Percy doesn’t have the institutional/systematic protections that Monty does, and even though his friend’s father is an abusive asshole, it doesn’t erase the privileges being the son of nobility gives him in this system. Percy doesn’t want to be rescued; he wants to live in a world where rescuing isn’t necessary, and this is something else that currently translates.
“It’s good of you to stand up for me when I can’t do it for myself. But it’s difficult that you have to. And I’d expect the [spoiler removed] feels the same.”
Of course it’s wonderful when those in power stand up for those with less, but what we need is to dismantle those power structures that make such action necessary and create a world where it isn’t.
Monty thinks racism a “people are being mean to me because of my skin color,” which is unfortunately how some still view the phenomenon instead of what it actually is: structural oppression. This gives clues on how Monty conceptualizes his own treatment at the hands of his father. He sees it as his dad being a dickhead (which he is, don’t get me wrong), but there’s more to it than that. The earl is like that because queerness is systematically oppressed, but Monty’s privilege shield keeps him from seeing it, and therefore other oppressions, like this. While Percy, who isn’t afforded the same protections, has to ignore the most flagrant of insults in order to be accepted in “civilized” society, and he’s still looked at like a trained dog.
“Percy stays with us, though a bit apart—his desire to [spoiler removed] seems to be doing battle with his desire to not be alone in this crowd. If I’m riding on the coattails of my father’s connections in being here, he’s clinging to the seams, with no title, a gentry family, and the darkest skin of anyone who isn’t minding the refreshments. Most people we meet either gape openly like he’s fine art on display or pretend he doesn’t exist. One woman actually claps her hands in delight when she spots him, like she’s just witnessed a soft-eared puppy perform a trick.”
Felicity completely understands Percy’s point of view. When Monty once again fails to realize why his friend is upset about being mistaken for his manservant when he isn’t:
“‘Well, do you think I enjoy being mistaken for your manservant everywhere we go?’ ‘But you’re not my man, so what does it matter?’ ‘If he doesn’t understand it, don’t explain it to him,’ Felicity mutters.”
She’s not only able to pick up on the problem, but also why Monty can’t comprehend it. Felicity is also wholly in the right to be pissed at her brother for calling the woman in the fore mentioned incident a “whore” and upholding the double standard. Even though Monty is bisexual and therefore faces a nearly insurmountable level of oppression for that, he’s also privileged as the wealthy, white son of an earl, and Lee is brilliant in showcasing these three characters as a study in how such things come into play.
All of the Monty’s ignorance about oppressive systems is not even remotely an attempt to say he is not also a victim, because while you can be privileged in numerous ways and it can mitigate some of your marginalizations, it’s never going to be 100% and everyone’s situation is different, even if the future early believes:
“Everyone has a rough go. I’ve had it far easier than most people.”
Your sprained ankle doesn’t hurt you any less because I have a broken knee, but Monty’s words are sadly reflective of many abuse victims. You try to conceptualize it like this to brush it off, because the alternative is dealing with it when you often have no way of doing so.
The Grand Tour is Monty’s reprieve from his father’s abuse, and yet even leagues away he can’t escape the effects of PTSD. There’s an altercation where Monty is hit in the face and called a “pervert,” while he tries to not think about his father, which gives a clear indication this is a trigger.
“I can’t imagine living in it for the rest of my life, throwing parties in its parlors and filling the cabinets with my papers, all the while ignoring the dark spot on the dining room floor that’s never washed away, where I tore my chin open when my father knocked me to the ground with a single well-swung fist; or the hearth that chipped my tooth when I was thrown into it.”
Monty is a victim of abuse; this cannot be understated. Privilege and oppression can operate in tandem, and while aspects of the former can mitigate those of the latter (and vice versa), neither can be erased. One can absolutely censure him for not understanding the (different) systematic disadvantages Percy and Felicity face due to their identities, but that doesn’t mean Monty doesn’t have disadvantages due to his. He’s a bisexual man living in the mid-17th century who’s abused by his father due to it. Both things can be true. Henry can be both a survivor and also not comprehend or empathize with how oppression works in demographics not his own. Not only does he have to face this individual abuse, but the structures of society that support it and allow his father to hold his future (financial and title) hostage because Henry isn’t the son he wants. It’s awful just writing it and even awful when you realize very little has changed.
“…the idea of Father being the reason I was swollen and bruised would’ve been so absurd to Felicity it apparently never crossed her mind.”
Abusers don’t abuse everyone they come into contact with or even everyone they have power over, which of course makes it easier for them to get away with the abuse. They manipulate both their victims and those who don’t know about the abuse, because the latter is led to believe the perpetrator could never be abusive, leaving the abused even more isolated (and gaslit) for disbelief. While Felicity was certainly discriminated against for being female, she wasn’t physically beaten like her brother for being bi.
Having three characters experience different and nuanced oppressions was a masterful move on the author’s part. They all have to figure out ways to navigate such while still seeking their aspirations like Felicity secretly studying anatomy while pretending to read trashy novels. Of course the most irritating thing is all three of them face the same goddamn oppressions people still face today, though I think Percy has the worst hand of the lot, as he has to deal with the intersection of being both Black and epileptic in a time where the latter isn’t fully understood. His aunt believes he’s possessed by demons, and his uncle, while not assigning so clear a supernatural milieu to it, still thinks it’s punishment for being a “half-Negro” bastard. Oh, and he also believes he can “control” his fits, so yeah, not great. Learning Percy planned to enter an asylum at the end of the tour was gutting, especially since I know how awful asylums were at this time in history (not that their equivalent is that great now…), and Felicity shows her true colors again in declaring any ideas of Percy’s “possession” nonsense. This is the practicality that drew her to anatomy in the hopes to study medicine. Percy, himself, doesn’t actually mind his epilepsy for itself, because the problem isn’t that he has it. Just like it isn’t a “problem” that he’s a “half-Negro bastard.”
“I’d rather it didn’t matter. It’s not good, being ill, but I live with it. I wish my family cared for me enough to love me still. Not in spite of it. Or only if it went away. Maybe if they hadn’t already had to deal with me being dark-skinned . . .”
The intersection of racism and ableism cannot be understated either then or now. The problem is how he’s treated for these things, not that he is either of them.
“My aunt thinks that this is God’s way of punishing me. The family’s bastard Negro boy has convulsive fits—it’s appropriate. She still won’t be disabused of the notion that I’m possessed by the devil, and my uncle keeps telling me that I need to stop being hysterical and overcome it.”
He only has a seizure every few months, which isn’t something that should stop him from being a lawyer. It has no affect on his mental acumen; the only issue is his shitty and judgmental family’s concern with how people will see them.
“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.”
This is honestly all disabled people want able bodied ones to understand.
I haven’t even talked about the main plot of the book, which is bananas because it has similarities with my favorite plot, but I don’t want to spoil, and, while of course it is important (it’s the mystery driving the story forward), I think the commentary Lee makes around it is far more vital to the zeitgeist. The adventure these three young people go on becomes something so much more than what they were expecting. At one point Monty and Felicity are the outsiders for once in a place where they’re no longer part of the white majority, yet Monty still finds a better father figure there then he ever had in his biological. The man tells him he’s worth something, tries to teach him how to throw a punch, and when he calls him by his given name, and for once Henry doesn’t flinch at hearing it. This doesn’t hold a candle to what the experience does for Percy.
“It occurs to me suddenly, as I look down the deck to where Percy’s sitting with his fiddle and two of the men, who are singing a tune for him in hopes he can pick up the melody, that this must be the first time in his life he’s around men who look like him. Men who don’t assume he’s worth less than them just because of the color of his skin. Among the [spoiler removed], he has nothing to prove.”
I was expecting a lighthearted romp with this novel; the title deceptively lead my expectations so. What I received was a spot on still relevant and nuanced critique/examination of not only racism, sexism, homophobia/biphobia, and ableism, but how these marginalizations intersect. Even though the setting was the 1700’s, nothing occurred within that isn’t relevant today…which is a bit depressing. The book is much heavier than the blurb suggests, and I barely touched on the plot itself in this review. Monty and crew find themselves embroiled in a plot involving Spanish siblings, because the future viscount will do anything to “save” his best friend, even dabble in alchemy.
I generally love when any media isn’t what I expected, and I was impressed with how the author (a white woman) must’ve done her homework to give a nuanced take on the issues. It was clear she wasn’t letting Monty skate by on his shallow takes about Felicity and Percy’s plights all without forgetting that he, too, was a victim. People can have both privilege and oppression as well as the intersection of such to navigate, which is the case with all three of them: Monty, a (potential) future earl who has to endure the abuse of his homophobic father; Felicity, a woman from a noble family who wants to be a doctor; and Percy, the epileptic, half-Black son of an English gentleman and a Barbadian woman. Monty showcases how one can completely misunderstand someone’s point of view if you insist on looking at it only through your own lens, and it was often Felicity who understood exactly where Percy was coming from even as she herself had some seriously problematic views on homo/bisexuality.
None of the characters were perfect, and that’s what made them so, and even though the novel is told exclusively from Monty’s viewpoint and the series is called Montague Siblings, this was really Percy’s story, and while there’s a lot to be said about filtering the experiences of a disabled POC through a wealthy, white man’s eyes (and if we want to get meta a white woman as the author), that choice served to show how important it is for people to be allowed to tell their own stories in the blatantly shortsighted ways Monty failed to understand.