In Mackenzi Lee’s first month working at the Harvard Coop while earning her M.F.A in Children’s Literature from Simmons College, the store sold 40 copies of Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Until then, they had sold five copies. Total. Customers would say, “ ‘I’m looking for a board book for a baby shower,’ and I would be like, ‘That’s great, but have you read Code Name Verity?’ ” Lee remembers.
And while people would respond to Lee’s passion for the novel (she sometimes teared up mid-pitch), they almost always bought it with the caveat, “I don’t usually enjoy historical fiction.” And, now, years later, online reviews of Lee’s second novel, A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, are getting similar opening statements. “It’s amazing how many will begin with the phrase, ‘I don’t usually read historical fiction, but…’ ”
Why is it so difficult for people to choose a historical teen novel without first proclaiming their general distaste for the genre? “I think a lot of it comes from the historical fiction we were forced to read in middle school and high school,” Lee says. “It’s boring, really dry, and it’s always really sad because it’s about war and people dying. People get this idea that history is always sad and serious.”
And there’s also the fact that young adult historical fiction books haven’t embraced the push for more diverse narratives in the way that contemporary and fantasy novels have. “People get intimidated and use the phrase ‘historical accuracy’ as a sort of shield for, ‘It’s OK to just write about white people because that’s what was happening at the time’, or…the idea that empowered and independent women in history is inherently inaccurate because women had so many systems of oppression built against them…and I just think that’s crap.
“It’s very easy to take history in lump statements. It’s very easy to say, ‘all queer people in the 1700s were oppressed’….We don’t account for the variability of human experience in history in the same way we do for modern characters.”
Which is why Lee made sure that Gentleman’s Guide was an antidote to both of these common shortcomings, although its bright, humorous tone was more-or-less inherent; Lee began writing it as she struggled through the novel she actually had a contract to write. “I thought, ‘I have to write something to make writing fun again,’ so I decided to write the silliest adventure novel I could possibly come up with. And since no one was going to read it, nothing was off limits or too wild, which is why the streaking scene at Versailles exists.”
Gentleman’s Guide’s characters also reflect a variety of modern teen experiences while remaining historically accurate. Monty and his best friend, Percy, spend much of the novel trying to navigate their feelings about one another and experience a steamy make-out session in a Parisian music hall early in the book. “That was a hard balance throughout the novel,” Lee says. “Writing about sexuality in a way that modern readers could understand but in a way that still felt true to the time period; having a sexual identity is not necessarily something [Monty and Percy] could have related to.” Percy is half-black and half-white and is being raised by his upper-class aunt and uncle, a narrative that’s based on Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mixed-race woman in 18th century England with a similar family structure.
Felicity, Monty’s serious-minded but bold younger sister, frequently saves the day with her medical knowledge; she spent her childhood secretly studying medicine by covering textbooks with the covers of romance novels. While all of the women that Lee researched for Badass Bygone Broads—her weekly Twitter series focusing on just that—influenced Felicity in that they were “women who defied convention of their time and were able to live liberated lives doing work they were passionate about,” the most direct influence was Clelia Duel Mosher, a sex-positive doctor in turn-of-the-century America who dedicated her research to topics like menstruation and birth control.
Is it likely, then, that readers will start choosing young adult historical fiction of their own volition? Who knows, but books like A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue will certainly help erase the qualifiers.
Shara Zaval is a writer living in New York.