I must confess a predisposition to liking the name Monty. My great-grandfather was named Montifiore, which he shortened to Monty. If I ever change my name, it would be some variation of Monty, and any first-born son would be similarly endowed.
That’s why I fell right away for the rapscallion hero in The Gentleman’s Guide To Vice And Virtue by young adult (YA) fiction author and self-confessed “history nerd” Mackenzi Lee. Her lead character goes by Monty – a shortening of Montague in this instance, though his given name is actually Henry.
Lee’s debut novel in 2015 was the critically acclaimed speculative fiction/fantasy, This Monstrous Thing. The Gentleman’s Guide is the American author’s second book, and it is part historical fiction with dashes of romance and a heady dose of comedy. We’re talking laugh-out-loud guffaws.
The Gentleman’s Guide is set in the 1700s and follows Monty, his younger sister Felicity, his best friend Percy, and bear leader Mr Lockwood on “Monty’s Grand Tour” of Europe. Back then, the “Grand Tour” was essentially a chaperoned trip that young men and women of rank and means took for months, even years, to allow them to experience the art and cultures of Europe.
Due to what his father terms “bad behaviour”, this is Monty’s last chance to get his life on track. In fact, his father issues an ultimatum: Let the wonders of Europe fix you, come back civilised and assume your responsibilities – or not at all.
Lee has crafted in Monty a loveable, quick-witted scamp. He drinks too much, smokes too much, and is a general embarrassment to his family. He also frequents the gambling halls, gets expelled from venerable and prestigious boarding school Eton College after an amorous interaction with a classmate, and returns home drunk as he shucks his clothes on a drunken path to his bedroom.
But because of his title and his family’s standing in society, he’s managed to avoid confronting the pressing issues in his life and get away with all sorts of scandals relatively unscathed.
The Gentleman’s Guide starts as a clever and comical look at life in upper-crust Georgian London, but as soon as Monty’s journey begins, the book morphs into an adventure caper that’s rife with courtesans, highwaymen and pirates. As a result, the rest of the book feels less Oscar Wilde and more E.M. Forster – not that it’s not entertaining, but it’s missing the witty repartee of the early chapters.
Still, Lee weaves all kinds of threads into her characters and their story. On the people side, there’s bi-racial Percy, whose white father had returned from an overseas jaunt with a brown baby before he died. And there’s Felicity, who’s against being shipped off to finishing school in France, which Monty can’t understand as she’s always longed for an education. (He completely misses the distinction of wanting to go to university instead of being pressed into learning about social graces.)
Monty has to learn to navigate the continent, and his evolving relationships with (annoying little) sister and best friend. The latter is supremely interesting, as Lee explores not just the racism of the era that Percy would have endured, but also the approaches to illness (causes being demon possession and poor diet) and the burgeoning realisation of love between best friends.
Then there’s 18th-century Europe. Having lived abroad while attending university herself, Lee has certainly done her homework on the places, sight and events of the period she’s written about. From the Palace Of Versailles to romantic Venice and the azure Aegean Sea, each domain is fondly described and reads as a place you’d love to visit.
Before picking up The Gentleman’s Guide, I had twice within a month read about kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer mixed with powdered gold, silver or platinum. The repair is obvious but the object is still considered beautiful because of the obvious flaws it has weathered.
In her way, Lee incorporates this technique into her book as we see Monty shattered, then pieced together again over the course of his story, his life and its wounds stitched back with growing bonds between his sibling and his best friend. The Monty at the end of The Gentleman’s Guide has the essence of the imp we encounter initially, but he has been forged and subtly changed by his travels.
This book won’t be everyone’s tipple with its depiction of sex, love, drinking and violence, but it is certainly a fresh and welcomed voice in YA fiction. Monty is truly the hero we didn’t know we needed.
The Gentleman’s Guide To Vice And Virtue
Author: Mackenzi Lee
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books, young adult period fiction