REVIEWED BY GARETH JONES
Alison MacLeod (Bloomsbury Circus: 2021)
During her recent visit to the Suffolk Book
League Alison MacLeod gave an absorbing account of her recently published work, Tenderness. Part fact–part fiction it explores some periods in the life of D. H. Lawrence, including the composition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the subsequent history of the novel. The subject was compelling but six hundred pages and weighing two and a half pounds (in the units of the time) did not quite align with my current zeal for downsizing … perhaps the excellent Ipswich Institute might buy a copy and allow me first read?
To quote the author ‘It is a work of fiction although clearly some of its characters were inspired by real people who are used in my novel, to varying degrees, fictitiously’. This immediately raises the question of where the facts stop and the fiction begins – a matter of more importance to some than to others. One has only to read the author’s extensive sources and acknowledgements to appreciate how much research went into the book; much of the work is indeed based on what did actually happen.
The novel opens in Vence, on the French Riviera, at the very end of Lawrence’s life as the consumption that has ravaged him for years will wait no longer. His enduring but difficult marriage to Frieda gives security and angst in equal measure and she makes little secret of her attachment to Angelo Ravagli whom she will eventually marry, twenty years later.
Gradually the backdrop unfolds to ten years earlier and to the Villa Canovaia just outside Florence. Rosalind Baynes, daughter of Hamo Thorneycroft RA, the celebrated sculptor, has just arrived with her young children and their nurse after leaving her marriage and philandering husband. Not entirely without guile herself – arranging an amorous assignment with a friend to assist her divorce – she and Lawrence quickly resume a relationship that began during the First World War in Sussex and where a major part of the story takes place.
In 1915 Lawrence and Frieda were offered accommodation and hospitality by a wealthy and cultured couple, Wilfrid and Alice Meynell, on their family estate in Sussex. It was here that Lawrence and Rosalind first met but it was also the setting for an episode from which Lawrence emerges with little, if any credit. It is not for me to divulge the details of the disturbing story which MacLeod relates coolly and even-handedly. However, the critical and barely disguised portrayal of his generous hosts in a published short story greatly upset them and haunted the family for years.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover was first published privately in Italy in 1928 and its graphic description of the relationship between Constance Chatterley and Oliver Mellors soon led to trouble with the authorities; it was banned for obscenity in the United States in 1929. Thirty years later, the rising Democrat John F. Kennedy was increasingly seen as a credible President and his glamorous wife was known to be enthusiastic about the novel. From a different perspective the FBI and its sinister Head, Edgar Hoover, took an increasing interest in Jacqueline Kennedy and her cultural contacts, especially the critic Lionel Trilling. We meet the sad, downtrodden agent Mel Harding as he watches Jackie and takes surreptitious photographs of her with a variety of ingenious cameras. The spirit of the age and the contrasting lifestyles of the characters are described in brisk and vivid prose.
And then comes the famous Old Bailey trial of 1960 in which Sir Allen Lane, the head of Penguin Books, was prosecuted for publishing the uncensored version of the book. Sixty two years on and for those of us of a certain age (mine, for example) it remains an indelible, gripping episode; Mervyn Griffiths-Jones not quite up to speed with postwar social changes and failing to get the better of a young Richard Hoggart. It was indeed a moment of liberation and I duly went to W.H. Smith in Cardiff and bought my copy, taken out from under the counter and in a brown paper bag. Long forgotten, sometimes long remembered names briefly surface as witnesses and onlookers, one or two with links that go some way back into the story and MacLeod weaves a seamless and coherent narrative.
It is certainly a substantial read and there was a sense of a task fulfilled on finishing it. However, one is taken on a fascinating journey, with many interesting and talented characters directed by an accomplished writer. Tenderness is waiting for you in the Ipswich Institute library. Enjoy!