REVIEWED BY TRICIA GILBEY
Alison MacLeod (Bloomsbury Circus: 2021)
It is hard to imagine a book called Tenderness being put ‘on trial’ but Tenderness was the original title for Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Alison MacLeod’s excellent long and engrossing novel revolves around D. H. Lawrence, his writing of what was to become Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and the obscenity trial of Penguin Books in 1960. Swirling in time, connected in disparate ways, the characters and situations in each strand of this novel relate to the fate of Lawrence’s story. The judgment in that trial changed the path of literature; and its resolution, which fed into a revolution, still reverberates today.
When Tenderness was finished, Alison MacLeod posted a picture on social media of the carpet under her desk, which was completely threadbare in the place where her feet had been. She had sat for many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hours writing this book. I knew nothing about the novel at that point but awaited it with anticipation as I have rarely seen an image which captures the work of writing as well as that one does, and I knew it was going to be big.
And it is — I am frankly in awe of what Alison MacLeod has achieved. This is a novel which travels through time and space on the wings of beautiful prose. I particularly loved the strand about the Sussex artists’ colony, Greatham, in which Lawrence stayed. MacLeod expertly weaves the words of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the earlier England, My England, into the thoughts of her Lawrence, so it is as if we see the stories appearing in his mind. MacLeod shows how ideas evolve and grow, and suggests how Lawrence’s feelings and experiences were channelled into words.
MacLeod doesn’t play down Lawrence’s flaws but shows us him in the round. She also suggests how his health and relative poverty affected him, as did his relationship with his wife and other writers of the time who came to stay. She takes us into the family he and Frieda were staying with too. I found the strand following the Meynells through until the time of the trial really affecting, raising fascinating questions of how much an artist should borrow from the lives of those in their orbit.
There is one more strand which I imagine in technicolour, rather than sepia — the part of the story set on the U. S. coast, as Jackie Kennedy’s husband prepares to challenge for the presidency. The fictional Harding, working for the FBI, captures a photo of her at the U. S. hearings, in which J. Edgar Hoover attempts to ban imports of Lady Chatterley’s Lover through the U. S. postal service. This story is involved, and vividly imagined, and I will do it an injustice if I summarise it, but I thought it added enormously to the themes about the value of art and the effect novels can have in the ‘real world’ of politics, of academia, and on the individual consciousness of their reader. It also showed how the effects of Lady Chatterley’s Lover spread far beyond England.
For me, the success of Tenderness is in its ambition, its sweeping themes, its many viewpoints. It is a novel which speaks of being true to the art inside you. It shows how the words of a great novelist travel beyond their own time and place into future generations. This is a book to immerse yourself in this winter, perhaps ahead of Alison MacLeod’s visit to us in the spring.