The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
A lurid and pulpy tale of Georgian sexuality
288pp, Cornerstone, £16.99 (0844 871 1514), ebook £5.99
This is, asserts the author’s note, “a true story”. But, as the protagonist of Neil Blackmore’s latest novel is revealed to be not just unreliable but implausible, the reader might come to question that – and to wonder how far fidelity to the truth is necessary for a good work of historical fiction.
With Radical Love, Blackmore, who has previously given us an overtly gay Francis Bacon, continues his mission to bring light to queer history. It’s London in 1809, and the Rev John Church, our narrator, is preaching that faith should be practised purely as tolerance, in order to rescue the public from hatred and prejudice. These are dark times: a cost of living crisis during a never-ending European war (“F--k you, Napoleon!” is the title of the opening chapter). Meanwhile, Church has a secret life: he has a male lover, and he performs marriages for men in a molly-house – an underground haven where gay men can feel worthy of love.
Blackmore evokes an eyewateringly potent London of old. Southwark is “a s--thole – metaphorical, literal and moral”, with factory- and brothel-workers locked in attics, while Covent Garden is “that famously chaotic nest of whores and pickpockets”. His description of the punishment meted out to convicted “sodomites” – pelted with excrement, dead cats and rocks in the pillory or on the gallows – is unflinching. He, via Church, even rebukes the reader: “Do you want to turn from the descriptions? Then shove your face against it, for it is the truth of what was done.”
That’s indisputable. And yet: the narrative becomes secondary to such admonishments. Blackmore can’t resist hammering home, through arguments between his 19th-century characters, the hypocrisy of so-called liberals who retain their homophobia or want to brush bigotry under the carpet. Church even lectures us on how the end of slavery was supposedly delayed by the Establishment, including the Royal family.
Then, in a series of pulpy twists, our narrator is gradually unveiled as a deluded, dangerous liar. Does it matter that this Church diverges from the real one, or that his tale grows so lurid? For fiction, certainly not. But Blackmore’s rug-pulling conceit feels at odds with his desire to make us face the truth of our collective past. Perhaps that would have been the more radical path – though it might have produced less of a page-turner.