The Dangerous Kingdom of Love (2021): Neil Blackmore

★★★½

In the English court of 1613, there are two paths to success: noble blood or a pretty face. Francis Bacon has neither, so he’s had to resort to bribing the King’s loathsome little favourite Robert Carr, in order to secure an appointment as Attorney General. This new job offers some protection from Bacon’s phalanx of noble enemies, who’d love nothing more than to see him fall from grace, but almost immediately he learns of a worrying development at court. Robert Carr is due to marry the daughter of the Earl of Suffolk, one of Bacon’s nemeses, and Bacon knows perfectly well that his days are numbered unless he can come up with a way to break their stranglehold over the King. Ideally, he’d dislodge the brattish Carr by finding a beautiful, amusing and irresistible boy to offer up as a new potential favourite for the King. When Bacon’s path happens to cross that of the ravishing George Villiers, he seizes the opportunity, without stopping to think of the challenges that lie ahead: the task of playing Pygmalion and the difficulties that might arise when his creation gains power of his own. Giving centre stage to one of the period’s most fascinating characters, Neil Blackmore’s novel of sexual ambition in Jacobean England achieves the tricky feat of being both historically convincing and enormously fun.

Francis Bacon once thought that he’d make his name as a writer. His youthful works were hailed with rapture across Europe, but in recent years, rather like that poor old hack Shakespeare, he hasn’t managed to produce anything quite as good. He’s tinkering with a few things on the side, including a treatise in which he hopes to debunk the pernicious Aristotle and encourage a more empirical approach to scientific enquiry, but progress is slow. Besides, he’s been busy with life at court, a life which largely involves him battering against the impenetrable exterior of this ‘world of diamond-hard lineages‘, whose fortunate scions sit inside and sneer at him. Chief among them are the Howards, the vast kinship network dominated by Suffolk and allied with Bacon’s other devoted enemy, the Earl of Southampton. Bacon knows that he’s regarded as a jumped-up functionary, even though his own father was a valued servant to the old Queen Elizabeth, but he fears that it goes deeper than that. The court may rotate around a king who openly takes a young man to his bed but, crucially, James I’s relationship with Robert Carr (and any other favourites) is couched in familial terms. He is Carr’s ‘Daddy’; Carr is his beloved ‘son’. It offers a smokescreen of respectable affection that’s just thick enough for everyone to pretend complete ignorance of what’s actually happening or, if absolutely necessary, to acknowledge it as some kind of ideal Platonic partnering. But, crucially, it also allows the courtiers to maintain their loathing for anyone who shares James’s predilections but doesn’t have the power and status to brazen it out.

Here lies Bacon’s problem. Like James, he finds sexual comfort in the arms of other men, but he has no crown to protect him. Instead, indignant and lonely, he lives in constant fear of exposure, forced to slake his desires in the dark places of the night, where a willing partner can all too swiftly turn into a violent aggressor. Bacon often speaks with scorn of the ‘Normal Man’, the smug family man who has nothing but contempt for ‘sodomites’, and no compassion for another human being in pain. Love, for Bacon, would mean exposure, first to his house-servants and afterwards to the world at large: it would mean ridicule at best and, at worst, destruction and execution. What kind of choice is that? And so he has trained himself not to need or desire love – a training that’s put to the ultimate test when George Villiers explodes into his life like a comet. Bacon, it transpires, is ill-equipped to resist the very charms with which he hopes to dazzle the king. The scene is set for a complex dance of attraction, in which one misstep could lead to tragedy, and in which Bacon must judge what it is that he truly most desires: love? Or that thing which is rarer and more precious still – power? And the stakes grow ever higher for, as Villiers makes his triumphant entry into court life, Bacon hears a rumour that might bring down Carr completely: a rumour of betrayal, opportunism and murder.

Part love story, part political thriller, this is an engaging story which brings Bacon to centre-stage – a rare prominence, I think, at least in my experience of historical fiction. Despite his importance as a harbinger of modern scientific thought, Bacon doesn’t seem to make it to the first rank of characters: if he appears at all, he’s a secondary character, or a bit of a comic role, as seen in No Bed for Bacon (perhaps people like Helen, who’ve read a much wider range of fiction set in this period, will have encountered him more often). Blackmore is a dashing writer, combining period flavour with the odd modern turn of phrase, and the result is highly readable. His Bacon has a deliciously sarcastic narrative voice, convincingly that of a man far superior in intellect to the courtiers who look down on him. His shoulders are riddled with chips acquired while painstakingly clawing his way up the greasy pole, and the only time this Bacon ever seems truly comfortable is in the company of his best friend Ben Jonson – a wonderfully affectionate, appealing figure in Blackmore’s hands. This Bacon never quite scales the heights of another court functionary of the period – this isn’t quite Wolf Hall – but Blackmore conjures up all the avaricious jostle of the Jacobean court with aplomb.

Reading The Dangerous Kingdom of Love inevitably prompted flashbacks to other books: The King’s Assassin tells the same story from a non-fiction perspective, albeit with a less central role for Bacon. The prose style, with its mixture of wit and crudeness (not to mention its appreciation for pretty boys), reminded me a little of A Dead Man in Deptford, though I stress that Blackmore’s prose is much more approachable than Burgess’s; more, perhaps, along the line of To Be A King. I’m also looking forward to reading more about Robert and Frances Carr in The Poison Bed by Elizabeth Fremantle, which has been on my shelf for quite a while, and which promises to take a point of view that’s far more sympathetic to them. It’ll be very interesting to see how large a role Bacon plays there, and how he’s portrayed.

I should add that Blackmore has been extremely busy recently. The Dangerous Kingdom of Love is due to be released this coming July, but it’s only been a month since his last novel came out: The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle, which looks rather like a cross between The Talented Mr Ripley and The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue. Intriguing…

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review.

A rogues’ gallery of our key characters. Clockwise from top left: George Villiers; Robert Carr; Frances Stuart; James I; and Francis Bacon.

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