The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy
by Mackenzi Lee
A year after an accidentally whirlwind grand tour with her brother Monty, Felicity Montague has returned to England with two goals in mind—avoid the marriage proposal of a lovestruck suitor from Edinburgh and enroll in medical school. However, her intellect and passion will never be enough in the eyes of the administrators, who see men as the sole guardians of science.
But then a window of opportunity opens—a doctor she idolizes is marrying an old friend of hers in Germany. Felicity believes if she could meet this man he could change her future, but she has no money of her own to make the trip. Luckily, a mysterious young woman is willing to pay Felicity’s way, so long as she’s allowed to travel with Felicity disguised as her maid.
In spite of her suspicions, Felicity agrees, but once the girl’s true motives are revealed, Felicity becomes part of a perilous quest that leads them from the German countryside to the promenades of Zurich to secrets lurking beneath the Atlantic.
Since reading The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, I’ve been looking forward to this companion novel focusing on Monty’s aro/ace sister who wants to be a doctor but is denied the kind of education she needs because she’s a woman.
Following the events of their turbulent trip across Europe in The Gentleman’s Guide, Felicity has been working in a bakery in Edinburgh, a city renowned for its progress and education in medicine, and trying to convince various hospital boards to allow her to study. When the baker she’s working with proposes to her, Felicity decides to visit Monty and Percy in London to get away from a future of popping out babies.
In London she once again tries to convince a hospital board to take her on, and again she is patronised and laughed at. One of the doctors takes pity on her and advises her to seek out Dr Alexander Platt, Felicity’s idol, who has travelled to Stuttgart to get married to an old childhood friend of Felicity’s. Though Monty tries to stop her, Felicity strikes a deal with a pirate, Sim, who agrees to take her to Stuttgart because there’s something there that she wants herself.
What ensues is another romp, with a distinctly feminist feel and a science girl gang.
Felicity is a very different protagonist to Monty, and while she doesn’t quite have his sense of humour she’s still wonderfully sarcastic and I laughed out loud several times while reading this book. Part of the joy of reading this book is having Felicity grow on you as a heroine. She’s not particularly likeable straight away.
“Inscrutable?” She lets out a short breath of laughter. “Coming from the prickliest girl I’ve ever known.”
“Prickly?” I say. “I’m not prickly.”
“Felicity Montague, you are a cactus.”
Felicity goes on several journeys throughout this book; her literal journey to Stuttgart and her journey towards the career she wants, but my favourite thing about this book was how Lee completely trampled on the ‘not like other girls’ trope. Felicity does initially think she’s better than other girls who like traditionally feminine things, because the misogynistic 18th century world she’s been raised in has taught her that femininity means weakness and not being taken seriously.
Her friendship with Sim and Johanna, Sim who she has only just met and Johanna who she was best friends with when they were children, helps pull Felicity out of her internalised misogyny. Her friendship with Johanna, in particular, was so well written.
So many of us have that one friendship in childhood that was almost an obsession, spending long summers together where you can’t imagine not being together, and then adulthood comes along and forces change and not all friendships survive it. Felicity’s discovery that Johanna liking pretty dresses and wearing makeup doesn’t mean she can’t also still like animals and the outdoors and botany was such wonderful character growth, and it was lovely to see these two friends rediscover each other.
The ruffles of yet another ridiculous dress whisper against the floor behind her.
Not ridiculous, I correct myself. Softness can be an armor, even if it isn’t my armor.
It was so satisfying to see Felicity’s asexuality discussed and acknowledged, too. The word ‘asexuality’ itself wasn’t used, and as far as I know that word wasn’t used in terms of human sexuality in the 18th century, but she is very clear romance is something she’s simply not interested in. Even better, when another girl shows an interest in her she doesn’t try to force some kind of relationship on her and instead is quite happy to remain her friend and nothing more.
We do get glimpses of Monty and Percy in this book, who are sickeningly in love and it’s adorable, but while it was lovely to see them they didn’t overtake the plot and it remained very much Felicity’s book. In fact, I think I enjoyed this book even more than I enjoyed The Gentleman’s Guide – it was so refreshing to read a YA novel where the focus was on friendship, and friendship between girls at that, more than anything else.
I can’t wait to read whatever Lee releases next, her writing style is so easy to gobble up, and I hope, one day, we might see more of the Montagues – even if it’s just the odd short story.