When Benjamin and Edgar Bowen embark on a Grand Tour of Europe, they are ready to meet People of Quality. They have trunks full of powdered silver wigs and matching suits, a hunger to experience the architectural wonders of Ancient Rome and an ability to quote Voltaire (at length). They will make connections and establish themselves in high society, just as their mother has planned.
But it soon becomes apparent that their outfits are not quite the right shade of grey, their smiles are too ready, their appreciation of the arts ridiculous. Class, they learn, is not something that can be studied.
Benjamin’s true education begins when he meets Horace Lavelle. Beautiful, charismatic, seductive, Lavelle delights in skewering the pretensions and prejudices of their milieu. He consumes Benjamin’s every thought.
Love can transform a person. Can it save them?
Okay, repeat after me: WE DO NOT BUY BOOKS JUST BECAUSE THEY HAVE PRETTY COVERS. Ugh, who am I kidding... of course we do! As a bookseller I should know better - there's literally an expression that warns against it - but what can I say, I'm like a magpie when it comes to beautiful books and, like poor Benjamin Bower, I was entranced by the lascivious Lavelle.
In my defence, the book cover was giving me major The Binding vibes, which I loved (and did not buy just because it had beautiful sprayed edges and a pretty dust jacket nope nope nope 😬) and it's been a while since I read an adult book so I figured, why not?
What's it about?
The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle is a historical novel set in the eighteenth century that follows two brothers, Edgar and Benjamin Bowen, setting out on a Grand Tour of Europe in the hopes of establishing connections with high society and generating business for their father's shipping company (the family business the brothers will one day inherit). While Edgar takes their travels seriously and makes a real effort to build a good reputation, Benjamin finds the aristocracy pretentious and awkward and has no intention of becoming a part of it. With Edgar's encouragement, Benjamin reluctantly performs the role expected of him, but when Horace Lavelle - a mysterious and charming gentleman with an open disdain for high society - arrives on the scene, Benjamin suddenly finds his loyalty wavering. Can he resist the temptation of Mr Lavelle?
A Frankenstein's Monster of My Favourite Books
If I were to describe my ideal book to someone, it would sound a lot like The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle:
a gothic, historical novel steeped in mystery and forbidden secrets
a gay protagonist (obviously)
a sprinkling of wit and intellect - nothing too showy or pretentious but just enough to add a sense of depth to the characters
depictions of uncensored sex that are both realistic and uncensored
This book ticks all of those boxes and while it's not the best book I've ever read, it was pretty inevitable that I was going to love it simply because it has so much in common with other books I've enjoyed in the past. The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle combines the eighteenth-century European setting and romance of A Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue, the charm and obsession of The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the secrecy and forbidden desire of The Binding, with a twist of Shakespearean tragedy for good measure.
Are you starting to see why it seduced me?
Mad, Bad and Dangerous To Know
Of course, the highlight of Neil Blackmore's book is the titular Lavelle, the ultimate Byronic hero. Blackmore writes really well but it's his characterisation of Horace Lavelle that really deserves praise. Because Lavelle really is an awful character. Truly selfish, hypocritical, hurtful and cruel. And yet, like Benjamin, I found myself falling for him despite myself. Lavelle is an enigma and it's his mystery as much as his handsome looks that draws you in. Throughout the novel, Blackmore drip-feeds you tidbits of information about Lavelle's past, helping you piece together his character's history but always leaving you craving more. From the little we do learn about Lavelle, it's clear he went through some pretty horrific childhood trauma and abuse, which, while not justifying his behaviour, at least explains some of his toxic tendencies and overwhelming desire to manipulate people. From a psychological standpoint, Lavelle is a fascinating character, and as a reader it's a strange experience finding yourself simultaneously aware of his ability to manipulate and entrance, and seduced by him at the same time. I found myself falling victim to the same tricks and charms as Benjamin so I really empathised with his character, who was clearly struggling with his own sexual identity and was unfortunate enough to find the trickster Lavelle as his outlet for expressing those forbidden desires.
“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.” - Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
You'd be forgiven for thinking that The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle is simply a historical queer romance novel but in truth it goes far deeper than that. Because while the book is named after Lavelle, it's never really about him or his relationship with Benjamin at all. It's about a family harbouring secrets, rewriting their histories and concealing the deepest aspects of their identities from the world. Lavelle is simply the catalyst that forces them to confront their truths and expose themselves not only to the society they are so desperate to be a part of, but also to themselves. Just like The Inspector in J. B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls, the role of Blackmore's eponymous anti-hero is to reveal the cracks in the foundations of a seemingly perfect family. What makes Lavelle so unique is the delight he takes in his destruction. There's a moment where Edgar and Benjamin's mother exclaims that Lavelle is the devil. And, as Benjamin ponders, perhaps he is:
"Maybe Lavelle had been the Devil. After all, don't they say that the Devil is a charming man? Lavelle was diabolical in every sense of the word, from the worst to the best, the repulsive to the exquisite. God hated the Devil because he spoke the truth. Man fears the Devil because he means to do him harm. Truth-tellers can be harm-doers too."
Or perhaps she simply sees him as the devil because he singlehandedly undoes the lies she's lived with long enough to become truth. Maybe it's both.
A gothic tragedy of epic proportions set against a vibrant eighteenth-century European backdrop, The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle is a novel steeped in mystery and intrigue that poses far more questions than it answers. Filled with tantalising sex scenes and shady encounters, Blackmore reveals the dark underbelly of the Enlightenment era while shining a spotlight on the darkest parts of the human psyche. Every bit as seductive as its title suggests, The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle is one of my favourite books of the year and a must-read for any fan of queer romance and gothic fiction. Though a word of caution, this book does contain anti-semitic references and homophobic violence so do bear that in mind if you're thinking of reading this book.
Have you read The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle? What were your thoughts?
Know any other gothic / historical queer reads? Let me know in the comments!