Womanly Arts: The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee

Mackenzi Lee’s The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy couldn’t have come out at a better time. Women are angry. We’re stepping up and raising our fists. We’re shouting at those who would silence us and resisting those who would pat us on the head and send us back to the kitchen. So thank Hera for Felicity Montague, Johanna Hoffman, and Sim Aldajah, for they are just as angry as the rest of us. No man dare stand in their way.

Things couldn’t get much worse for Felicity. She’s broke and working at a bakery in Edinburgh instead of proving her worth in medical school. No school will take her because she’s a woman, a restriction that festers in her like an open wound. She isn’t one of “those girls,” she tells herself. She’s better than that. She doesn’t waste time with fripperies and fancies. Her hair is never styled, she wears no makeup, and her clothes are sensible. None of that matters to bakery owner Callum, a kind young man whose greatest goals in life are to get married to a sturdy woman and have a passel of anklebiters. For him, Felicity fits the bill. For Felicity, his proposal is just one more slice of bad luck.

In a funk, Felicity flees to London in a last ditch attempt to get a job in a southern hospital. Monty and Percy, though desperately poor, offer her a place to stay as she fails to shame a bunch of sexist men into bringing her on. Just when she’s about to give up, she meets Sim, an Algierian pirate crewed up with Scipio, whom we last saw giving the Montagues and Percy a lift in The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue. Felicity’s last chance is securing a position as a research assistant to Dr. Alexander Platt, lately of Stuttgart, but she has no way of getting to him. Sim, who wants to retrieve something stolen from her family currently in the home of Platt’s patron, the Hoffman family, agrees to fund their trip east.

Things get even worse from there. Platt is engaged to Felicity’s former bestie Johanna, Felicity is forced to socialize with shallow socialites and prevent Sim from robbing the Hoffmans, Platt fails to live up to Felicity’s idolization of him, and Johanna runs away the night before her wedding. Once Sim and Felicity set off after Johanna, the plot gets even wackier. Yet again Felicity finds herself on a journey far from home where magic and bigotry merge into a frantic, fabulous story.

It’s clear from the first page of Lady’s Guide that what we saw of Felicity in Gentleman’s Guide was filtered through Monty’s self-centered perspective. Felicity isn’t prickly but protective. A fortress surrounds her heart, and no one may enter. She isolates not because she wants to be alone but because she’s afraid of getting hurt. Past experiences taught her that vulnerability and openness lead to pain and loss. Between her emotionally absent parents, the scorn of her peers, the abandonment of her best friend, and the disrespect from men, is it any wonder she’s closed off?

This is a book about womanhood and femininity, about how men have forced unflattering stereotypes onto women and how women carve out space within those limitations. In the beginning, Felicity thinks herself the ideal woman. She’s spent so much of her life being told women are worthless that she’s come to believe it. The less girly she behaves, the more she hopes to be taken seriously by men, but the patriarchy doesn’t work that way. All her efforts are spent trying to convince men to let her into their testosterone-drenched world instead of focusing on her strengths. She cannot improve the patriarchy, but she can create a new system built on equity and inclusion. But first she must shed her own biases against her gender.

Lee sprinkles in examples of what Felicity sees as her only three options in life. Through a dead female naturalist, she sees a dire future where she continues to devote her entire existence to trying to force educated men to respect her. A socialite shows her a life as the empty-headed housewife to a vastly more interesting man, a future of pretty clothes, sticky children, and not much else. And a young woman about to see her inheritance given to her younger brothers offers Felicity a glimpse at a future where she surrenders to the male ego and settles for being an assistant, doing all the work and getting none of the credit. But are those truly her only choices? Is there another future where she can pursue medicine without sacrificing her femininity? Men keep telling her there isn’t, but perhaps it’s up to Felicity to forge her own path?

Blending into all that is her lack of sexual and romantic attraction to others and the absence of any terminology to understand or explain how she feels. Although the words “asexual” and “aromantic” never appear in the text, it’s clear she’s under the ace/aro umbrella. And no one is bothered by that! Sim questions her lack of attraction, but out of curiosity rather than condemnation or dismissal. But perhaps the most important part of all this is that her ace/aro-ness is never framed as the cause of her self-imposed isolation. Media often portrays ace people as emotionally cold and unable to care about others. The more Felicity explores her sexual and romantic identities, the more they are distinguished from her social habits. By the end, she discovers she can be ace/aro and have loving relationships, that not wanting sex or romance does not mean she can’t also have meaningful friendships.

My only regret is that Felicity, Johanna, and Sim spend so little time together as a trio. Felicity gets plenty to do with Johanna, and not quite enough to do with Sim, but the three of them working together happens infrequently. However, I can understand why Lee keeps them apart as long as she does. As a trio, they are a powerful, intimidating force, but that unity has to be earned. Felicity undergoes the most change, and she in turn triggers evolutions in Johanna and Sim. They cannot come together until Felicity has learned to work with each individually. Her trust allows Johanna and Sim to come to an accord, which then allows a united front. It makes sense on a technical level why that has to come toward the end of the novel, but on a personal “I LOVE THESE WOMEN SO FRAKKING MUCH!!!” level, I wanted to see more of them together. Perhaps a follow-up novella of them a year or two down the line? Pretty please with sugar on top?

The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy is a wholly satisfying and extremely charming partner to The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue. It’s exactly the young adult historical fantasy we need for this particular moment in time. Mackenzi Lee tackles sexism, racism, colonialism, exploitation, gender expression, sexual and romantic identities, and feminism all in a quirky, gutsy tale about quests and fantastic beasts and fashionable attire. As flawed as she is, Felicity faces obstacles set before her by dubious men and her own misconceptions with determination and a strong sense of self-worth. If you don’t come out of Lady’s Guide ready to resist and persist, then I don’t know what to do with you.

The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy is available from Katherine Tegen Books.

Alex Brown is a YA librarian by day, local historian by night, pop culture critic/reviewer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, check out her endless barrage of cute rat pics on Instagram, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.

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