Tenderness by Alison MacLeod review – the triumph of Lady Chatterley

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<span>Photograph: Derek Berwin/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Derek Berwin/Getty Images

From the vantage point of the present moment, the life and work of DH Lawrence resemble an earthquake that disrupted and rearranged consciousness among readers; that disruption regenerated the soil artists have been tilling ever since. It is testament to the magnitude of this earthquake that whenever aftershocks occur, they still have an uncanny ability to shift the ground. Peter Gill’s productions of Lawrence’s plays at the Royal Court in the 1960s, which are radically underappreciated as foundational moments in the development of postwar British theatre; Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, a wild work riffing on Lawrence’s equally wild Study of Thomas Hardy; Rachel Cusk’s daring novel Second Place, currently Booker-longlisted, drawing on reminiscences of Lawrence.

Then there is the most significant aftershock of all – “the end of the Chatterley ban”, credited by Philip Larkin with ushering in sexual freedom. In 1960, in the wake of a change to British censorship laws, Allen Lane, publisher of Penguin books, resolved to issue an unabridged edition of Lawrence’s final novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, previously a banned book due to its sexually explicit nature. The resulting prosecution and acquittal of Penguin and Allen Lane was a watershed in the history of freedom of speech.

In her novel Tenderness, Alison MacLeod traces Lady Chatterley’s sources in the thickets of Lawrence’s own biography, then follows its tortured progress towards the light through the indecency trial. In doing so, she offers up two visions of what a novelist can be – the novelist as alchemist, turning the straw of his life into gold and not counting the cost, and the novelist as historian of ideas. Her focus shifts elegantly, imagining Lawrence as he nurtures ideas in sequences rich with poetic memory, then recounting the trial with journalistic rigour. Here she is aware of the vantage point she writes from – when EM Forster enters, “he nods to us as he crosses the threshold of the court, the only person yet to notice. He is a novelist of rank, and he senses the eyes of posterity.” The novel ends with a deeply moving imagined sequence, an afterlife of happiness for Constance and Mellors that is beautiful and unexpected. These shifts seem effortless because MacLeod’s subject sits above them all, uniting threads – the story of how a story made its way into the world. It’s a brilliant insight to build a novel on, all of us knowing the book will triumph and willing it towards us. It makes for a propulsive, addictive, joyous read.

Related: The trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover

The only questionable leap is MacLeod’s decision to counterpoint the history of Lady Chatterley with a story about Jacqueline Kennedy during her husband’s presidential campaign, and the tribulations of the FBI agent who covertly photographs her attending a similar “Chatterley trial” in the US. This sequence, it should be noted, is masterfully achieved, chronicling FBI director J Edgar Hoover’s efforts to keep the book from the world, and full of deep resonances with the story unfolding on the other side of the Atlantic. But it never really impacts on the journey of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and seems somehow separate, useful for rhythmic variation but distinct from the rest. MacLeod may have been reaching for the echo effect of The Hours, Michael Cunningham’s novel about Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, but there’s something un-Lawrentian about choosing one of the most important women in the world as counterpoint. Lawrence wrote in A Collier’s Friday Night “as many things happen for you as for me” – his work is one of the wellsprings of 20th-century artistic humanism. Evoking the great and good doesn’t necessarily rhyme with his poetics, although 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 is much to love in this novel, because MacLeod loves so much of what she has put into it

There is much to love in this novel, because MacLeod loves so much of what she has put into it. First of all she loves Lawrence, whose work is spectrally threaded in quotes and echoes throughout, giving the novel a beguiling sense of gatheredness. There is also a sustained love song to Sussex, where MacLeod lives. This abiding theme, and MacLeod’s descriptions of stories forming in Lawrence’s mind, recall Matthew Hollis’s study of the last years of Edward Thomas, Now All Roads Lead To France, and World Without End, his widow Helen Thomas’s memoir.

The triumphant emergence of Lady Chatterley’s Lover is given fitting tribute here; it reminds us that moments like the Chatterley trial are precious, and must be cherished and defended, because progress is never inevitable. Victories for freedom should be sung from the rooftops. That is what MacLeod has done.

Tenderness by Alison MacLeod is published by Bloomsbury (£18.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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