Elegant and ambitious -
Tenderness by Alison MacLeod
Tenderness by Alison MacLeod is the spellbinding story of Lady Chatterley's Lover, and the society that put it on trial; the story of a novel and its ripple effects across half a century, and about the transformative and triumphant power of fiction itself. Published with glowing praise from the likes of Elif Shafak, Elizabeth Gilbert and Madeline Miller, Tenderness is the kind of rich, evocative and immersive novel that is perfect for the autumn reading. Especially for Foyles MacLeod has written a blog giving further insight into her glorious novel, which also features a small cameo from our own Christina Foyle.
The Case of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the Booksellers
In the summer of 1928, in a dark little Florentine bookshop, D. H. Lawrence was overseeing the printing of his latest – and, as it happened, his last – novel. ‘My cough is as ever.’ His lungs were devastated by TB; the haemorrhaging was getting worse. He weighed little more than seven or eight stone, and he was luminously pale in the heat of a Tuscan summer. To Aldous Huxley, he wrote: ‘I’ve got to sell my novel, or I’m a lost soul.’ The price would be two guineas, and his own drawing of a rising phoenix would decorate the hardback’s boards.
In the spring, he’d sent the manuscript off to his publisher, Martin Secker, with a plea: ‘Don’t all in a rush be scared and want to pull whole sections out.’ But Secker, aware of the Obscene Publications Act – with the probability of a steep fine or possibly prison – was not scared. He was clear: he could not publish it. Lawrence instructed his agent not to bother trying other publishers; he couldn’t bear the hand-wringing and hypocrisy of the replies he anticipated. ‘I’m beat by their psychology,’ he told Huxley.
Even so, he was ‘embarked. You must stand by me when the seas rise.’ The plan for private publication was born: ‘If I can carry this thing through, it will be a start for all of us unpopular authors.’
The scandalous novel was of course Lady Chatterley’s Lover. ‘It is a nice and tender phallic novel,’ Lawrence assured a friend, ‘not a sex novel in the ordinary sense of the word.’ Tenderness had been his previous choice for a title. ‘And those are the first two things, tenderness and beauty, which will save us from horrors… [I]n my novel I work for them directly, and direct from phallic consciousness, which, you understand, is not the cerebral sex-consciousness, but something really deeper, and the root of poetry, lived or sung.’
The notion of tenderness is vital to DHL’s body of work – essential to his vision not only for the full life of the individual, but to the sane progress of the wider world, especially as the world was in the wake of the cataclysm of the first world war: ‘The leader to-day needs tenderness as well as toughness,’ Lawrence argued.
Utterly convinced of the importance of his new manuscript, he was nevertheless relieved to learn that, in Florence, ‘the printer doesn’t know a word of English’, which was convenient given the variety of so-called 4-letter words lovingly spoken by Mellors, Lady Chatterley’s earthy gamekeeper-lover.
Lawrence predicts, rightly, that ‘some people will want to annihilate me for it.’ He could keenly remember the burning of all 1,011 copies of his 1915 novel, The Rainbow, in London, as well as the penury that followed. Yet in the summer of ‘28, he was determined to do everything in his power for ‘the full, fine flower’ of his novel. Why, he asked, ‘should the red flower have its pistil nipped out, before it is allowed to appear?’ Moreover, even when he tried – for a subsequent expurgated edition – he simply couldn’t do it: ‘I might as well try to clip my own nose into shape with scissors. The book bleeds.’
To elude Customs and postal officials, he and his publisher-partner-in-crime, Pino Orioli, resorted to false titles, plain wrappers and secret shipments. ‘Does me good,’ Lawrence admitted, ’to feel furious about the novel.’
More reason for fury was to come. Many of his thousand precious copies were about to be confiscated in both Britain and America, and the threat of arrest by Scotland Yard was to loom over the self-described ‘outlaw’ until his early death, at the age of 44, just two years later. He signs off one 1928 letter, ‘Your sincere “traitor and enemy of the human race”’ in a two-finger jibe at the status quo.
But back in England, things were about to get even worse. Lawrence confided in Aldous Huxley: ‘…the booksellers have hastily written to say we must take back their copies at once, they couldn’t handle the Lady, and I must cancel their orders, and will we remove the offence at once. That is in all 114 copies we have to fetch back… Then there are rumours that the police are going to raid the shops.’
Lawrence’s beloved Lady C. had become untouchable. Foyles wrote to Lawrence and Orioli describing it as ‘a book we could not handle in any way’, although at least Foyles had the decency to cover the cost of its own returns.
Thirty years after Lawrence’s death, the spectacle of Regina v Penguin at the Old Bailey was about to grip the nation – and the world’s media. Penguin, the first British publisher to attempt release of the full, unexpurgated edition of Lawrence’s most controversial novel, was being prosecuted in the autumn of 1960 under the Obscene Publications Act. An amendment to Act had been introduced in 1959, making some room for a distinction between literature and pornography – but how much room remained the question. If found guilty, publisher Allen Lane and Penguin would face an unlimited fine – or even the possibility of a 3-year prison sentence for Lane as publisher.
A jury of nine men and three women, plus thirty-six expert witnesses, vindicated Penguin Books, Allen Lane, and Lawrence’s reputation. Constance Chatterley and her lover Oliver Mellors also walked free that windswept November day. So did the many readers who immediately queued up in their hundreds around Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus on the day of the verdict to buy the new paperback for 3/6, the cost of just ten cigarettes. As Larkin famously recollected:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban
And the Beatles' first LP.
The Defence papers of Michael Rubinstein, Penguin Solicitor, and the court notebooks, kept by the Defence barristers, make fascinating and, at times, hilarious reading. In the basement of the University of Bristol library, I discovered in their archives – in barrister Richard Du Cann’s impeccable hand – the notes he wrote in pink felt-tip pen in court as the trial advanced. He noted, for example, the Prosecution’s count of all the ‘rude’ words in the novel. ‘Balls’, for example, appears thirteen times. The aim of the Prosecution throughout the six-day trial was to shock and scandalise the jury. Their efforts failed, and that in itself was, for many, a shock. Penguin Books triumphed against every odd.
I’m delighted to say that Richard Du Cann’s notes now form the end-papers for the hardback of my novel, Tenderness. It is the story of Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, from inspiration to suppression to liberation. More even than that, it is my own exploration of what it means to live fully; to have a voice and to use it; to have an imagination and to defend its expression and power in the world.
Among the trial papers, one finds Evelyn Waugh informing Michael Rubinstein that ‘Lawrence had very meagre literary gifts’, Alec Guinness admitting that he ‘cannot honestly say’ that publication of the novel was ‘for the public good’, and a senior of Hatchards Piccadilly declining to take part, as a witness, ‘in what is sure to be a most amusing affair’.
By contrast, the owner of Foyles, the largest bookshop in the world in 1960, went some distance to making up for the return of those six copies to Lawrence in 1928. Christina Foyle agreed to stand as an expert witness. She provided a witness statement in preparation for her performance in the stand: ‘I found Lawrence’s style beautiful and impressive, as I expected… I exercise no censorship – any book published by a reputable publisher we sell. I do not think that Lady Chatterley’s Lover could conceivably deprave or corrupt anyone.’
Perhaps, in the end, she was not among the thirty-six called to give testimony because her wit was too unpredictable, too non-conformist – and too enjoyable: ‘In my opinion, the only person who will find the book obscene is the person who is looking for obscenity – the psychopath, the gentleman of inelegant leisure who haunt the medical sections of bookshops.’
Michael Rubinstein, who was possessed of a wonderful wit himself, nevertheless felt obliged to put two lines through each page of her statement. At the top he wrote, ‘Not to be called’. Yet, there in the temperature-controlled, hushed basement of Bristol’s Special Collections, I couldn’t help but give a silent cheer for Christina Foyle, for her wickedly good phrasing – and for being on the right side of history.
Alison MacLeod is the author of three novels - The Changeling, The Wave Theory of Angels and Unexploded, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013 - and two story collections. She is the joint winner of the Eccles British Library Writer's Award 2016 and was a finalist for the 2017 Governor General's Award. She was Professor of Contemporary Fiction at the University of Chichester until 2018, when she became Visiting Professor to write full-time. She lives in Brighton.
Author Photo © Kate MacLeod