The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy
Katherine Tegen Books
October 2nd 2018
About halfway through The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, the protagonist looks into a mirror and is struck with a case of nerves. She’s about to meet a personal hero, and her appearance falls well short of standard. But then her determined thoughts cut in through her lack of confidence in her clothes: “Your beauty is not a tax you are required to pay in order to take up space in this world. You deserve to be here.”
If these words sound familiar—like the earnest statement of a YouTube life coach or a sign held up at a Take Back the Night rally—then you might be startled to hear them coming from Felicity Montague, a gentlewoman of the landed gentry in Georgian England. But Mackenzi Lee has a gift in convincing us that these sentiments are not exclusive to our time, and that of all the ways Felicity is different from a modern woman, her feminism is not one. In giving voice to her prickly, passionate heroine, Lee shows us how her historical struggles mirror those we live with now—especially the struggle of a woman to be seen.
Taking place about a year after The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue (Lee’s second novel and this book’s antecedent), Lady’s Guide picks up with Felicity in the spotlight, having made her way to Scotland after parting ways from her brother Monty and the mad adventures they were roped into together. Felicity is the perfect foil for Monty: she doesn’t care for drinking or debauching, boys or girls, or any frivolous pursuit. Her goal is to be a doctor. Unfortunately, she has little chance of reaching medical acclaim while disowned by her noble family and currently working at a bakery. It doesn’t matter how well-read she is, or even if she has acted as a makeshift medic before, treating gunshot wounds and amputations. As Felicity well knows, any woman with the desire to learn medicine will be constantly frustrated by her circumstances.
Chafing at the expectations set for her by society, Felicity sets off on a get-noticed-quick scheme to meet her medical hero, Dr. Alexander Platt. In much the same way that Gentleman’s Guide started out as a Grand Tour and ended up derailed by a twisty alchemical plot, Felicity’s adventures in Lady’s Guide turn far more adventurous—and dangerous—than she intended. The road to doctordom, it turns out, is paved with extortion, kidnapping, double-crosses, and a wondrous new species of sea creature that will delight any fan of nautical adventure fiction. In daring to leave the life prescribed to noblewomen, Felicity encounters new allies and foes alike, opening her eyes to the wider world—and to the people living in it.
Lee pays close attention to the details of Felicity’s world, both her familiar London and the farther shores that are often overlooked in historical fiction. In Lady’s Guide, we see an author who shows her work: everything from models of medicine to period-appropriate slang reflects the research that went portraying the eighteenth century accurately. (The author’s notes even include further reading in case you want to fact-check.) The result is a story that, despite fantastical elements, feels grounded in reality.
Which is why it’s so important that its protagonist is a persnickety, awkward, unrepentant tomboy—in both the modern sense and its eighteenth-century meaning of a “rude girl” (Dictionarium Brittanicum, 1736). Popular culture would have us believe that every inhabitant of an era other than ours was “of their time,” as in fully indoctrinated in said time’s prejudices and sexist notions. By this reasoning, every last woman in the Georgian era thought of nothing but embroidering pretty dresses and pleasing her future husband. Painting with such broad strokes like this would either erase a character like Felicity Montague or call her “unrealistic.” But real women actually did fight—and eventually win!—the right to be taught medicine in Felicity’s day. They weren’t content with societal expectations, and neither is Felicity. Constructing her fiction from historical fact, Lee proves that it’s not beyond belief for a young noblewoman to have progressive views or refuse to stay in the kitchen.
Lady’s Guide is full of small surprises like this, when what seems anachronistic turns out to have been era-appropriate all along. Call it the Tiffany Effect: seeing a name like “Tiffany” might throw off your sense of immersion in a historical novel, until you learn that it used to be a common variant of the name Theophania and has existed since the 12th century. Lee confronts this effect again and again, whether it’s Felicity’s swearing and spectacles, or the casual attitude of a group of sailors towards Monty’s same-sex relationship with his best friend Percy. Where it gets interesting is when the effect is reversed, and Felicity herself runs into concepts that have no name in her time. “Feminism” is one obvious example. An even more personal one would be “asexuality.”
For Felicity—single-minded in her goal of achieving a medical education—the question of marriage isn’t even on her mental map. But it’s not because her career takes higher precedence than her romantic life. She simply has no interest in romance whatsoever, a fact amusingly illustrated by her old habit of binding the covers of “amatory fiction” over the medical textbooks she read to disguise their actual content. In her own words, Felicity “can’t imagine being interested in anybody as much as she is in medicine, or anything besides medicine at all.” In today’s parlance, she’s asexual and aromantic. Despite these terms being new, Lee challenges the assumption that the concepts they describe are as well. Felicity thinks of herself as a rare flower for being unladylike, unimpressed by a noble lady’s life, and thoroughly uninterested in men or women. Her exploration of this identity feels rooted in her time and place, yet close enough to be recognized by modern terms—a neat trick, especially for readers who may see their own asexuality reflected without today’s accompanying discourse.
Felicity’s asexuality doesn’t leave her lacking for love of other sorts. Her passion for medicine defines her, but she’s far from clinical: underlying this passion is her urge to care for people. She objects to the way hospitals serve only those fortunate enough to afford their care; her compassion extends to addicts, criminals, and the poor. Though she doesn’t make friends easily, she harbors a fierce, protective love for those who fall in with her along the way. Even her brother gets her begrudging respect, which is all the more poignant given their family history. Felicity and Monty are both products of a family who forbade them from being themselves. While Monty was disciplined—often physically—for his inappropriate attraction to men and women, Felicity was relegated to the role of submissive future wife, a role she never wanted. They grew up fending for themselves alone, trading barbed back-and-forths that sometimes cross the line into real hurt, even at the cost of their sibling bond. But they manage a slow mending of this bond throughout Lady’s Guide, and when Felicity—who once condemned Monty’s relationship with Percy—finally calls them her “brothers,” the moment is both heartwarming and hard-earned.
Felicity’s loves round out her character with a softer side to offset her flaws. While capable, smart, and funny, she’s also socially awkward, sarcastic, and quick to judge. The fullness of her personality is such that she feels real on the page, even as she’d probably be difficult to be friends with in real life. I found myself far more captivated by her sometime companion Sim, a Muslim pirate with a sharp tongue and intriguing backstory of her own. Felicity’s blinkered view, however, prevents her from recognizing Sim’s full personhood right away. When she explains her position to an unimpressed Sim, protesting that “you don’t meet many girls like me,” Sim responds “Maybe not. Or maybe you just don’t look for them.” In many ways this story is about curing Felicity’s blindness towards the stories of others around her. That didn’t stop me from chafing at the limits of her perspective, but at least Lee goes a long way towards broadening her protagonist’s horizons, with the same meticulous care she applies to everything else in the book.
At the center of Lady’s Guide lies the question of how to reconcile one’s own ambitions with the inalienable rights of everyone else. In other words: what if the cost of being hero in your own story is that it overwrites the story of another person? This conflict plays out in many ways—some subtle, some direct. For example, Felicity is acutely conscious of being “the only girl in the room” when it comes to studying medicine, but only when she reaches Algiers does she realize how Sim has been in the racial minority for most of their journey. At a later point, upon their first sighting of the aforementioned sea creature known as “dragons,” Felicity’s childhood best friend turns to her and exclaims, “We have discovered a new species,” conveniently forgetting that Sim and her family have known of this “discovery” for generations. Despite recognizing that “these dragons are not new to the world, only to our very small part of it,” Felicity has to battle against her personal desire to be commended for some form of scientific achievement, even a stolen one.
When Felicity tells her own story, she casts herself as society’s reject, striving to make herself seen. But in the process she overlooks the other players in her life whose struggles are worth just as much as hers. The blindness of privilege, deliberate or accidental, enables everything from Felicity’s careless dismissal of other noblewomen to an insidious colonialist entitlement that threatens to wipe out a culture’s rightful claim in the name of British exploration. There’s an apt metaphor here for the modern feminist movement’s issue with intersectionality: white feminist voices, nominally fighting for equality, take up the spotlight at the expense of marginalized groups like the disabled, sex workers, queer and trans women, and women of color. In this way, again, Felicity is more like a modern woman than not. And by illustrating her slow awakening to her own lack of perspective, Lee gently indicates how we should approach this issue today. When fighting to be seen ourselves, we cannot forget or disregard those whose lack of privilege lets them go unseen.
The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy follows in its predecessor’s footsteps: it’s mostly a fun, historical romp, with enough conscientious attention to underrepresented viewpoints to make readers consider whose stories we are told most often and why. Felicity’s story—that of an asexual woman determined to know and to be known—gets its fair share of the plot. But even more than being seen herself, her journey is about looking beyond her limited white, Euro-centric circumstances. Through her eyes, history gets a good dose of realism, and not just the trappings of the eighteenth century but the wide variety of human hearts and minds it contains. Lee shows that there is room in historical fiction for feminism, for queerness, for non-white heroes and heroines. Not only are they accurate to their time period, they belong in the spotlight. Like Felicity Montague, they deserve to be here.