By Mahpharah Khan
“It is impossible to explain how you can love someone so much that it’s difficult to be around him. And with Percy sitting there, half in shadow, his hair loose and his long legs and those eyes I could have lived and died in, it feels like there’s a space inside me that is so bright it burns.”
Bisexuality during the 18th century was forcibly hidden, not uncommon. If homophobic people understood that gay relationships have existed since the beginning of time, we would be living in a drastically different world.
Mackenzie Lee’s “The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue” follows Henry “Monty” Montague as he embarks on his Grand Tour of Europe before he inherits his father’s estate. He’s accompanied by his sister, Felicity, and his best friend, Percy. Monty does not only have a massive crush on Percy — he’s in love with him.
Lee has a BA in history and has thorough knowledge of what life was like during 1700s Europe. Lee states the Grand Tour was a journey through the notable cities of Europe, usually undertaken by high-class white men after completing their formal education. It was popular from the 1660s-1840s, and the tour was meant to culturally expand oneself by visiting famous landmarks, observing art and architecture, and by mingling with the upper-class. Of course, teenagers will drink, party and gamble, so this was meant to get the partying “out of their system” before they entered the serious world.
Monty and Percy are two opposites who complete each other; Monty makes quick-witted, funny, and sarcastic remarks 90% of the time, while Percy is a softy who is kind and compassionate toward others — and has an extra soft spot for Monty. Monty’s recklessness gets him into trouble most of the time, but his self-reflection and effort to be a better person wins the reader over.
Lee manages to mesh a serious and light-hearted tone in this novel. It confronts heavy topics but still manages to convey its message: treat everyone like f—g human beings. Scary enough, basic human rights are still being argued about in 2020.
Homophobia seems to manifest in the same ways, no matter what the century. Monty flashes back to the times he was growing up, and what it was like to grow up with an emotionally absent and violent father. When Monty is sent away to boarding school, he kisses a boy and exchanges letters with him that are found when his room is searched. He is expelled for the explicit nature of the letters, and the headmaster eventually explains to Monty’s father the details for his expulsion.
“It’s running circles in my mind, all the vicious details of that week — my father’s face as the headmaster explained what had happened. The way that, after a while, he’d been hitting me for long enough that I heard more than felt the blows landing. All the things he called me that I’ll never forget.”
Emotional and physical violence enacted towards the LGBTQ+ community is always a foreground for murder — and they certainly have been murdered over the centuries. Percy comes to see Monty after he returns home, when Monty verbalizes for the first time that he wants to die. He describes it as being a peculiar feeling, but also reminisces how he felt calm and relieved when he was kissed by that boy behind the dormitories.
Percy says to him:
“Don’t be dead. I’m sorry you were expelled and I’m sorry about your father but I’m so glad you’re home and I … really need you right now. So don’t wish you were dead because I’m so glad that you’re not.”
“Gentleman’s Guide” does not only exclusively discuss the lives of white people — Percy is biracial. Monty tends to be an ass (while being a most charming one), so when Percy describes the difficulty of his position in the world, it helps him empathize with Percy when he witnesses the racism he experiences, or when Percy tells him.
Percy also has epilepsy. Mental illness was not a complex and compassionate conversation; it carried a heavy stigma, as it still does today to a certain extent. This stigma, and Monty’s occasional selfishness, bleeds over when Monty witnesses Percy have a seizure for the first time. Monty is upset when Percy tells him that he hoped he’d never have to tell him about it. Percy says he’s been lucky in not having seizures around Monty. Monty becomes more concerned with the fact that Percy didn’t tell him — but Percy checks him as soon as he starts.
“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.”
While “Gentleman’s Guide” is a novel that is worthy of its introspective discussion surrounding LGBTQ+ individuals, racism, ableism, feminism, parental abuse and alcoholism, it should also be noted for its fun and engaging aspect. Monty streaks through the gardens of Versailles for Christ’s sake — after being caught with a girl in the duke’s apartments, and then finding out later he accidentally stole a trinket box from him.
“Can’t you control yourself? Ever?”
“I’m sorry, are you getting on me to behave? You aren’t exactly a saintly enough candidate to be delivering on a morality lecture, darling.”
This is the beginning of how Monty ends up in deep trouble. It takes them from Paris, to Marseilles, to Barcelona, out to sea and eventually to Venice, where Percy finally acknowledges and reciprocates his feelings for Monty. There comes a price with them being together, however: Monty would not inherit his father’s estate and would be cut-off financially — probably forever. Of course this is alarming for Monty who has lived a privileged lifestyle for so long, but this conflict aids him in his growth. Would he rather be happy and live life on his own terms with Percy, or live an overly comfortable life while his father berates him for his existence?
Monty chooses Percy in the end. Monty knows that he is making sacrifices to be with Percy, but so be it — Percy is too. If he were to go back home in England, he would be sacrificing his humanity and right to live a happy life.
“And now Percy has his arms around me and Santorini and the sea are spread like a feast before us and there is sky all the way to the horizon. And what a sky it is.”