“Everything is about sex. Except sex, which is about power”—the quote, apocryphally attributed to Oscar Wilde—sums up much of the machinations at the heart of Neil Blackmore’s brilliant The Dangerous Kingdom of Love, a thrilling retelling of the later years of Francis Bacon’s life with the seductive frisson of Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses (or maybe Christopher Hampton’s theatrical adaptation, as Blackmore even opens the novel with a list of Dramatis Personae).
Weaving together true events and people with a dramatic flair, Blackmore brings us into Jacobean Britain, a place of courtly politics, betrayals, sodomy, and philosophy with a humourist’s wit, and just when you think the betrayals are over, the novel has one last sting in its tale.
Bacon narrates his own story here, on the outs in King James’ court, trying to maneuver his way around his enemies, the King’s lover Robert Carr and the Earls of Southampton and Suffolk. Together with Queen Anne, he decides to replace Carr with a new lover, one they can control.
This is not the revered Francis Bacon whose work in philosophy would shape much of modern thought, this is a struggling intellectual and philosopher, a man who is determined to take an elevated place in society, one which, as a homosexual, he can not secure through marriage or family. As he says, men like him cannot have love so instead he will have power.
Blackmore’s Bacon has a sharp mind, and a sharper wit with a constant awareness that even his victories may be fleeting. But, like the furtive, anonymous sex he has with strangers in the woods, he takes his joys where he can get them. He is insightful about the inner-lives of gay men and the “Normal Men” around them. There is rage beneath the wit, even as there is a resignation to the way of the world. Bacon knows that as a “sodomite” he lives on a knife’s edge, he could be thrown in jail or worse, beaten and killed in an instant. All it would take is a stray word or look. His practice at moving through the heterosexual world unseen makes him adept at maneuvering through court.
Bacon’s plan centers on a young man, George Villiers, whom he proceeds to turn into a weapon to remove Carr by winning the affections of the King. The Queen worries that the innocent, but not too innocent, Villiers may become a greater monster than the one they’re trying to get rid off.
Don’t worry if you don’t know the real history, it’s a neat backbone to the story but hardly where the real flavour lies. Blackmore’s real success comes from placing us straight inside Bacon’s mind, with all its turning wheels, fears, and predictions. Is Villiers using him or is he using Villiers? How much is he willing to lose to smite Carr? Is he falling in love with Villiers? Even when he’s winning, we know how easily it can all be taken away from him because we’ve watched him take it away from others. Blackmore’s prose, like Bacon’s mind, mixes both elevated and crude thoughts with scathing wit.
There is a seductively modern streak to the book as well. Bacon’s observations of others and himself give a knowing wink to the futures of psychology and medicine, and the book’s finale speaks to the modern moment in a surprisingly honest way.
I devoured this book over the course of two days, I could have easily read it in one had I started earlier. The prose flitters off the page with a mix of drama and humour that kept me entranced, and eagerly rushing to find more from Neil Blackmore.
By Chad Armstrong
The Dangerous Kingdom of Love by Neil Blackmore is available now in from your local independent bookstore.