FFrom the perspective of the present moment, the life and work of DH Lawrence resembles an earthquake that disturbed and reorganized the consciousness of readers; this disturbance regenerated the soil that artists have cultivated ever since. It is a testament to the magnitude of this earthquake that whenever aftershocks occur they always have a strange ability to move the ground. Peter Gill’s productions of Lawrence’s plays at the Royal Court in the 1960s, which are drastically underestimated as founding moments in the development of post-war British theater; Geoff dyer Pure rage, a wild work riffing on the equally wild Lawrence Thomas Hardy Study; Rachel Cusk’s daring novel Second place, currently on Booker’s long list, drawing on Lawrence’s reminiscences.
Then there is the most important line of all – “the end of the Chatterley ban”, credited by Philip Larkin with the advent of sexual freedom. In 1960, following a change in British censorship laws, Allen Lane, publisher of Penguin books, decided to publish a full edition of Lawrence’s last novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, previously a banned book due to its sexually explicit nature. The resulting lawsuit and acquittal of Penguin and Allen Lane marked a turning point in the history of free speech.
In his novel Tenderness, Alison MacLeod trace Lady Chatterley’s sources in the thickets of Lawrence’s own biography, then follows his tortured progress towards the light through the indecency trial. In doing so, she offers two visions of what a novelist can be: the novelist alchemist, transforming the straw of his life into gold and without counting the price, and the novelist historian of ideas. His gaze moves elegantly, imagining Lawrence nourishing ideas in sequences rich in poetic memory, then recounting the trial with journalistic rigor. Here she is mindful of the point of view from where she is writing – when EM Forster enters, “he nods at us as he walks through the threshold of the courthouse, the only person yet to notice.” He is a novelist of rank, and he smacks of the eyes of posterity. The novel ends with a deeply moving imagined sequence, an afterlife of bliss for Constance and Mellors that is beautiful and unexpected. These changes seem effortless because MacLeod’s subject lies above them all, uniting the threads – the story of how a story made its way into the world. It’s a brilliant idea to build a novel on, all of us knowing the book will triumph and wanting it over us. It’s a propulsive, addictive and joyful read.
The only questionable leap is MacLeod’s decision to balance the story of Lady Chatterley with a story about Jacqueline Kennedy during her husband’s presidential campaign, and the tribulations of the FBI agent who secretly photographs her attending a “Chatterley trial âin the United States. It’s worth noting that this sequence is masterfully crafted, chronicling FBI Director J Edgar Hoover’s efforts to keep the book out of the world, and full of deep resonances with the story unfolding across the Atlantic. . But it never really impacts the trip of Lady Chatterley’s lover, and somehow seems separate, useful for rhythmic variation but distinct from the rest. MacLeod may have researched the echo effect of Hours, the novel by Michael Cunningham about Virginia Woolf Mrs. Dalloway, but there is something anti-Lawrentian about choosing one of the most important women in the world as a counterpoint. Laurent wrote in A Friday evening of necklace “There is as much going on for you as for me” – his work is one of the sources of artistic humanism of the 20th century. Evoking the great and the good doesn’t necessarily rhyme with its poetics, even if the story is well told, and Harding, the FBI agent, is a beautifully shaped character reminiscent of the Stasi officer in The lives of others.
There’s a lot to love about this novel, because MacLeod loves what she put in it so much. First of all, she loves Lawrence, whose work is spectrally threaded with quotes and echoes throughout, giving the novel an alluring sense of coming together. There is also a sustained love song in Sussex, where MacLeod lives. This enduring theme, and MacLeod’s descriptions of the stories forming in Lawrence’s mind, recall Matthew Hollis ‘study of Edward Thomas’ later years, Now all roads lead to France, and Endless world, memoirs of his widow Helen Thomas.
The triumphant emergence of Lady Chatterley’s Lover here receives an appropriate tribute; it reminds us that times like Chatterley lawsuits are precious and must be cherished and defended, for progress is never inevitable. The victories for freedom must be sung from the rooftops. That’s what MacLeod did.