In the same week President Kennedy is elected, D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover wins the right to publication after being labeled obscene for 30 years. In her latest novel, Alison McLeod draws together the two events at the dawn of the Sixties as a symbol of liberation but from that starting point she weaves back through time and follows the threads that brought us to that point. She visits Lawrence, exiled in the Mediterranean at the end of his life and reflecting on his past, and she visits Jackie Kennedy in disguise, as she slips into the book’s US hearing. A cast of characters and a wealth of research draw together to form a sweeping 20th century tale of war, freedom, censorship, love, betrayal and tenderness.
Do you think the literary landscape would be different today had Lady Chatterley’s Lover not been published?
I do. Lawrence refused to divide mind and spirit from flesh and blood, or the embodied life from thought and meaning. It’s hard for us to understand today how radical, how daring, that was. He takes us intimately under the skin of his characters, even his minor ones. Something seismic happened in the history of literature when Lawrence delivered human consciousness and the up-close experience of the human body – without division from mind – to the page.
What were the main events in Lawrence’s life that informed Lady Chatterley’s Lover?
The First World War was the life-defining event for Lawrence, personally and artistically. He had a nervous breakdown from 1914-15, following the declaration of war. He believed it was industrial-scale slaughter. Lady Chatterley’s Lover opens with: ‘Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins’. It’s his last novel and, in it, he makes a case for the healing force of tenderness, sex, fertility and the natural world. It was his offering to a society traumatised by war. He had suffered from feelings of futility during the war – he was ill with undiagnosed TB – and something of this emotion gave way to the character of Sir Clifford Chatterley, helpless in his wheelchair.
His 1912 affair with Mrs Frieda Weekley, the daughter of a German baronet, also certainly influenced the illicit love story of Constance Chatterley and Oliver Mellors, an aristocratic woman and a working-class man. He married Frieda in 1914, but the presiding spirit of his novel and the model for Lady Chatterley was a woman called Rosalind Baynes, a woman with whom Lawrence had a brief extra-marital affair in September 1920, the only affair of his married life.
Tell us about your research for the novel. Did you unearth any new information and how did you decide where the facts should end and the fiction begin?
I spent six years on the research. I was in and out of archives, and my living room floor is still covered in turrets of books and documents. I travelled. After an epic search into the Florentine countryside, I found the three D H Lawrence houses (and views) that relate to Lawrence’s writing of Lady Chatterley, including the house where he had the affair with Baynes; also, the house where he started writing Chatterley in 1926.
I unearthed little-known connections relating to Rosalind Baynes; also to the FBI’s mission, in the 1950s, to keep Lady Chatterley banned. FBI Director J Edgar Hoover was directly involved. It was fascinating to uncover the history. Regarding the infamous Lady Chatterley obscenity trial in London in 1960, I spent years with the trial papers and lifted out a great deal of what lay behind the scenes of this international show-trial.
I love working closely with historical facts and with the ‘unknowns’: details lost to memory or buried in the hinterland of archives. But I’m
also a novelist, and I believe that the imagination can take us farther still; that it can offer us psychological insights into the world we thought we already knew. Sometimes, as a novelist, one must surrender a fact to show a bigger truth.
You draw together the US election of President Kennedy and Lady Chatterley’s Lover’s UK publication. What did the two events represent more broadly?
The two events were both triumphs in the struggle for liberal democracy, something I fear is fragile in the 21st century. In the case of the character of Jackie Kennedy, I closely follow the documented events of her public and personal life in 1959-60 – but, as I do that, I also ‘imagine her into’ a certain place and moment – a hearing for the banned American edition of Chatterley in 1959. By doing so, I’m able to show my readers, close-up, what the FBI was actually doing – chilling surveillance of American citizens and politicians. With the events of my story, I wanted to ‘lift up’ the intimate, often hidden, connections between politics, literature,
the imagination and freedom of speech.
The feminist writer Kate Millett said Lawrence was sexist but letters from him discovered much later suggest he had a more enlightened attitude to women. How do you view him in this regard?
Lawrence wrote a lot – in letters, essays and fiction – about ‘phallic consciousness’. Sometimes he ranted, and he frequently contradicted himself. If a woman tried to take sexual pleasure – rather than to receive it in due course – he was critical. These are failures of education and understanding, and he was a person of his time. Far more typically, however, he created major, remarkable characters who are so often women. I’d suggest that no other man of his generation represented female consciousness so fully and with such insight.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover may have marked the end of overt literary censorship but does it still exist in the form of censorship by the publishing industry, or are writers now as free as they can be?
I’ve never experienced censorship in publishing. My editors over 30 years have only ever encouraged boldness and innovation. Tenderness uses expletives; readers of more mainstream novels might not expect them, yet at no point was it suggested that I should make do without. There are some risky things about Tenderness, but
my publisher was only supportive.
I worry more about writers self-censoring – about the anxiety increasingly involved in imagining lives other than their own. Lawrence wrote women better than many women do. My own belief is that the imagination must be allowed to go anywhere. Does that mean I’m necessarily the best person to write a story of someone else’s experience? No. Does it mean I’ll have to give it all the labour, research and honesty it takes? Yes. But I will always defend our right as writers to imagine – and to write – the lives of those who might be, outwardly, different than ourselves.