The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue was one of my surprise favourite reads last year and I looked forward to being back in that world with those characters. The Lady’s Guide is Felicity Montague’s story. In the previous book, she starts off as Monty’s very prim younger sister who we soon learn has a lot to offer. In this book, she gets a chance to do just that with her very own set of adventures.
When the story starts, Felicity is in Edinburgh working at a bakery while she fights the archaic system that doesn’t allow women into medical colleges. The first line is also characteristic of the special brand of humour that made the Gentleman’s Guide so irresistible—”I have just taken an overly large bite of iced bun when Callum slices his finger off.”
It’s an uphill battle, and one that she will admit defeat in, before an attempt or two in London where she surprises Monty and Percy in their cramped apartment in a working-class neighbourhood on account of their father disowning his only son for being bisexual. (These two make some delightful cameos throughout the book and I can’t possibly love them more than I already do!)
When she finds out that her scientific idol is perhaps in need of an assistant for his next field trip (and is also engaged to be married to her estranged childhood best friend, Johanna Hoffman), Felicity runs off to Europe with a female African pirate called Sim Aldajah who is hell-bent on recovering a family heirloom from the Hoffman household. When everything goes awry and Felicity’s world is turned upside down, metaphorically and philosophically, the three women—Felicity, Johanna, and Sim—will have to muster all of their strength, wit, and resources to get out of the situation alive.
This is an important story for many reasons. Born at a time when women were considered inferior to men, when they were denied so many opportunities available to their male counterparts, Felicity knows how unfairly the game is rigged against her. In her explanation at the end of the book, Mackenzi Lee writes,
“There are many things that make this book fiction, but the roles women play within it are not. The women of the eighteenth century were met with opposition. They had to fight endlessly. Their work was silenced, their contributions ignored, and many of their stories are forgotten today.
Nevertheless, they persisted.”
This book is a tribute to those women who persisted against everything and emerged victorious. Felicity has a passion to know each inch of the human body and how it works—half of my heart is this hunger—and she also knows that she will have to work much harder because of her sex—That’s the lie of it all. You have to be better to prove yourself worthy of being equal. She knows that she will have to develop a thick skin against all those who question her, doubt her, warn her against the dangers of curiosity, and learning “too much”—Reading in excess causes the female brain to shrink.
“You are not a fool, you’re a fighter, and you deserve to be here. You deserve to exist.
You deserve to take up space in this world.”
Felicity Montague has always felt isolated and misunderstood among her peers, and subsequently clung more to her differentness, building up what she believes are impenetrable defences against getting hurt. Because deep down, she does very much care.
“I have spent so long building up my fortress and learning to tend it all myself, because if I didn’t feel I needed anyone, then I wouldn’t miss them if they weren’t there. I couldn’t be neglected if I was everything to myself.”
There is also the matter of her sexuality which complicates matters. Felicity is discovering and coming to terms with being asexual. What I appreciated about this book is that it is never once suggested that she is socially awkward or disconnected because of a prevalent misconception where being asexual is equated with a lack of empathy. By the end of the book, Felicity realises that she can be asexual, yet want close friendships and relationships; yet be emotional and care about other people.
“I think I want a house of my own,” I start, the words a discovery as they leave my mouth. “Something small, so I don’t have too much housework, but enough room for a proper library. I want a lot of books. And I wouldn’t mind a good old dog to walk with me. And a bakery to go to every morning where they know my name.”
“And you don’t want anyone with you?” Sim asks, raising her head. “No family?”
“I want friends,” I say. “Good friends, that make up a different kind of family.”
Johanna and Sim push her to consider new perspectives, to widen her horizon of beliefs. They get her to open out and loosen up. They get her to care. They get her to see that there are different ways of being a feminist.
“I’m learning there is no one way for life to be lived, no one way to be strong or brave
or kind or good. Rather there are many people doing the best they can with the heart
they are given and the hand they are dealt. Our best is all we can do, and all we can
hold on to is each other.”
What I love about this trio of women (and I wish there was more story that involved all three of them together) is that each one is an equal, a three-dimensional character with their own goals, flaws, and stories, instead of simply being a foil to Felicity’s protagonist. Each is strong, fierce, independent, yet vulnerable and soft in their own way—in short, fabulous role models. And Felicity finally realises important truths.
“In the company of women like this— sharp-edged as raw diamonds but with soft hands and hearts, not strong in spite of anything but powerful because of everything— I feel invincible. Every chink and rut and battering wind has made us tough and brave and impossible to strike down. We are mountains— or perhaps temples, with foundations that could outlast time itself.”
“Everyone has heard stories of women like us—cautionary tales, morality plays, warnings of what will befall you if you are a girl too wild for the world, a girl who asks too many questions or wants too much. If you set off into the world alone. Everyone has heard stories of women like us, and now we will make more of them.”
Through a first-person present-tense narration (not completely sure how I felt about that, but the story was engaging enough for me not to notice much), we are privy to Felicity’s innermost thoughts, as well as her discussions with herself and with others on a wide range of topics (including an interesting discussion about ethics and the purity of science and discovery that makes up one of the main, underlying themes of this book). It’s a voice that is distinct from Monty’s from the previous book. It’s not as laugh-out-loud funny, but Felicity’s narration has an endearing brand of sarcasm, sharp wit, and a stubbornness that sometimes makes us want to shake her.
A word on the plot. For me, parts of it, especially towards the end, were very far-fetched (and into the realms of magic realism) and a little too long, but the book’s pull, for me, was the trio’s personal relationships, interaction, and banter, rather than the action and adventure, which was more the vessel for them to continue being together.
All in all, this is a wonderful second book in the Montague duology—a sometimes anachronistic, but always heartfelt story about identity, coming of age, fitting in, and chasing your dreams.
“I don’t want simple. I do not want easy or small or uncomplicated. I want my life to be messy and ugly and wicked and wild, and I want to feel it all.”
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