Just what I needed to take a little break from the lengthy and detailed epic fantasy book I’ve been working on for the past month or do: a sweet and slightly wonky adventure! I just heard of this novel recently, and upon reading Narfna’s positive review of it, I knew it would be great for a little breathing room after reading a couple of more dragging and heavy things as of late. And it was absolutely delightful! Not a masterpiece by any means, but light and fun, and just generally feel-good.
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is a YA novel, focused on an 18th century English boy of noble birth named Henry “Monty” Montague. The story centers on the “tour of Europe” he and his biracial friend, Percy (loosely inspired by Dido Elizabeth Belle) go on during their last summer together. Along for the ride is also Monty’s tenacious young sister, Felicity. But of course it’s not such a straightforward trip, as havoc ensues and quite the adventure befalls these three companions, leading them into mystery, politics, and danger. It’s not all adventure though, as a large part of this novel is also based on a fluffy, pining romance. And is there really anything better than a fluffy, adorable little love story? I always joke about being so disinterested in love and how it’s a conspiracy, but I think we all know I absolutely live for romantic nonsense and was positively beaming at parts of this story. My heart… it’s been conned!
The adventures had here are wacky and fun, but that’s not what really makes the book. The thing that first and foremost made it enjoyable were the characters throughout, including some wonderful helpers who come in and out of the story along the way. Though really, the 3 main characters at the core of the action are the heart and soul of the whole thing, each of them tying more serious topics into the forefront, which ultimately affect the plot and provide some historical context to the book. It is what I would consider historical fiction, after all, with facts intertwining into a more complete fictional story, though there was a bit of a fantasy/fantastical element at one part that I was a little curious about and not really sure if it completely fit with the rest of the novel. But that little blip didn’t ruin anything for me! Because as I said, it’s the characters which really bring everything to life. So let me gush about each of them for a hot minute! Unnecessary, I know, but, I just adore them:
First and foremost, we have Monty, our fabulous, dapper boy who loves to have fun, get wild, and get into bed with anyone who takes a fancy to him. Which, being a charming lad, is apparently a lot. A lot of the time these dandy-type characters I find in novels (Brideshead Revisited comes to mind) come across as selfish, hedonistic, and reckless. I often wonder if they are indeed just interested in their own lives without a care in the world, or if there is something deeply wrong that no one wants to crack into or help. They hurt people along the way, but are in pain themselves. I found that having Monty as the protagonist had the great effect of balancing his outlandish personality with showing the internal conflict, as well as having people that clearly do care about him but don’t know how to help (or that he doesn’t want to show his suffering to). There is a selfishness to Monty, but also a growth and awareness, in particular in terms of how he has an effect on people: none more so than Percy, for whom Monty has been harbouring romantic feelings for for years on end. But he feels that this is unreciprocated, and so the soft, sad pining commences. It also brings into play the fact that history was gayer than we have all been led to believe: queer people have existed throughout history but it has been so shoved under the rug with the excuse of “they didn’t have a concept for that back then”. Hmm, maybe they didn’t have the same words as we do now to call Monty bisexual or pansexual, but you can best be assured that such people did indeed exist throughout history. And as such, we get a little taste of queer history and law from this time period.
Speaking of Percy, what a beautiful, lovely soul. The one who has put up with Monty’s nonsense over the years, trying to help him as best he can while his friend is clearly struggling. We get to see how you can love someone, but not agree with everything they do: how you can put up with only so much until you need to draw a line in the sand. And honestly, what a lad he is to be so kind and gentle as he is, bringing out the best in Monty as well as everyone else around him. Though Percy not everything about Percy has to do with Monty; he has his own struggles that he keeps hidden, for not wanting to burden others with them (can you say, relatable?) Not to mention his place in society as a high-born biracial individual. Here we are allowed to see some of the racial relations of the time period, and how they both influence the story as well as history.
Lastly, we have Monty’s younger sister Felicity, whose nose is always stuck in a book, and who I hear is getting her own sequel novel in the future? Sign me up! A scrappy young woman, always with her nose in a book, the sensible offset to Monty’s wild and impulsive ways. She rejects the prescribed course of womanhood that society has set out for her (can you once again say, relatable?), and through her we see just how woman are treated regardless of how they look and dress, as well as the politics of the time which stifled the interests and careers of many women. Just imagine how much further scientific study and research could have progressed if women had been “allowed” or encouraged to engage in it all along!
So all of this is to say, that while this novel is a bit fluffy and fun and free, that is not to say that there are not deeper and more meaningful themes at times. Do things kind of work out in a miraculous way during certain spots? Perhaps. But I didn’t find this distracting at all. The characters are engaging, and there is just enough action to keep it exciting and interesting. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and may indeed come back to it again in the future when I want to just enjoy something without thinking too hard.