The eighteenth century, redux: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
If someone had asked me ‘would you like a book about a rebellious eighteen-year-old bisexual aristocrat in the eighteen century?’ I would have obviously said yes. Add in the fact that it’s about going on a Grand Tour, full of adventure novel tropes, and is completely ridiculous in the way fun modern historical fiction should be and well. That’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue.
The book is aimed at older young adult readers, though I think it’s real target audience is anyone who enjoys trash eighteenth century (and/or is a fan of Byron). It follows Henry “Monty” Montague, who has been kicked out of Eton and faces his tyrannical father’s disapproval for his lifestyle of drinking, gambling, and sleeping with various women and men. He has been allowed to go on the stereotypical Grand Tour of Europe alongside his best friend Percy, his little sister Felicity, and a boring guardian, as a final yearlong break before he must start learning how to take over the family estate. However, when one bad decision too far on Monty’s part puts them in trouble, soon the cultured Grand Tour turns into an adventure across Europe full of highwaymen, pirates, and alchemy (plus Monty’s inconvenient massive thing for his best friend).
I may be part of its specific audience, but this is how historical fiction should be done. Based in historical fact and with a few actual figures thrown in, but for the most part using the spirit of the period to do something adventurous (literally) and enjoyable. The tropes are used purposefully (and anyone whose read eighteenth century stuff like Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey will know things written at the time were full of ridiculous tropes too) and add to the charm of the fast-paced and witty plot. The true highlight is the characters: the scandalous Monty who needs to learn to think about other people whilst escaping his father, his younger sister Felicity who has better plans for her life than the finishing school she’s meant to be going to, and the likeable Percy, Monty’s companion in gambling and drinking who is hiding a secret or two.
This is not your accurate historical fiction. This is what happens when history is treated with sufficient irreverence and as a vehicle for adventure, romance, and general hilarity, whilst touching on a few major issues that all still have relevance now in some way. The style is modern with a hint of eighteenth century, and it works for the story. Some people will be scandalised by it (probably), but this is a fun and fresh novel that gives a happy ending to a scenario plenty would think should have no hope of one.