Review: The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle

A curious time for being both punitive and permissive

Benjamin and Edgar Bowen are packed off on their Grand Tour with a guide book written by their mother, who hopes that they will meet people of Quality. They are, of course, innocents abroad, well versed in the Enlightenment ideals of Voltaire but not in the realities of being from the vulgar mercantile class amongst the unforgiving English nobility of the 18th century.

Edgar throws himself into the social whirl of Paris, seeking every opportunity to be known and thereby invited to balls, parties and receptions as well as those card games très intimes. Benjamin, by contrast, hovers in the shadows; here he can perceive all around him, his cynicism and intelligence shielding him from the subtle scorn of his aristocratic countrymen.

Horace Lavelle ‘an unwigged, golden-haired young man’ enters this void and accosts Benjamin at Aosta, the Alpine pass to Italy. Mercurial, beautiful, erudite and brutal, he turns Benjamin’s life inside out. Despite his brother’s pleas that Lavelle has a malevolence, he is addicted to this new friend. One cannot help but agree with Edgar as we watch Lavelle’s philosophy implemented – to reject, reject, reject – which brings inevitable destruction to the world Benjamin knew. But it also brings freedom. Benjamin is lost to the charm, chaos and unpredictability of Lavelle, who claims never to lie – but lies all the time.

The 18th century was a curious time for being both permissive and punitive; the distinctions between acceptable and abhorrent sexual acts seem baffling today. A man could take the virginity of a ten-year-old girl without punishment, but for consensual sex between men he could be hung. Mollies were sought out in London and beaten or pilloried – or worse. It is against this backdrop that the intimacy between these two young men develops. Lavelle challenges the closeting shame of being a sodomite, and this, alongside the sheer joy of discovery for Benjamin, means “I gave myself entirely, compulsively, to this new field of study: Lavelle’s desire, and mine; his pleasure and mine, which became ours.”

Ultimately The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle is a story about how far a person will go for love, for lust; Lavelle is “the single most thrilling experience of my life.” for Benjamin. He may reject his lover at one point in the novel but when Lavelle seeks him out again in London, he cannot resist him. Despite everything. It isn’t that he is blinded to the danger of this damaged young man, but rather, he is helpless against it. Neil Blackmore’s third novel delves into how a person can be blown open and changed forever by the intoxication of love and sexual desire, however brief. Meeting Lavelle is both a blessing and a curse for Benjamin, but it forces him to live a more honest life.

 Neil Blackmore; The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle; Windmill; 336 pp.; paperback