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.