Tenderness is a fascinating if overlong look into the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity trial. Encompassing such far-ranging real-life characters as First Lady Jackie Kennedy and J. Edgar Hoover, all of whom were either admirers of Lawrence of tantigentially involved in the trial, it is artful, sometimes fascinating, erotic but could stand to be chopped down by about a hundred pages.
Alison MacLeod’s interesting, well-written, sprawling novel initially focuses on the passionate marriage of Frieda and D.H. Lawrence and the period leading up to Lawrence’s death, during which he was forced to publish his latest novel privately and ends up with the only extant copies of the book barred from distribution due to obscenity laws. He knows the book will end up heavily censored in England, and his final struggles are poignantly mixed with love for his wife and his longing to be heard.
Ten years after his death, Lawrence’s legacy is called into question when an American publisher wants to release Lady Chatterley’s Lover – already a success in Europe – in its unexpurgated format in both England and the US. When the US government then chooses to bring the post office up on obscenity charges to prevent its publication, the book captures the attention of First Lady-to-be Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, and the trial that ensues drives her to an expression of independence and freedom far away from the tight strictures of playing the perfect hostess for her philandering husband. Her attendance grabs the attention of J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI and notorious scold, and thereby hangs the tale.
But many other real-life heroes and heroines who helped shape the trial – from a young girl who read the book and finds herself testifying – to Agent Mel Harding, a man who affects Jacqueline’s life in ways she does not expect. They’re all brought together for the British obscenity trial which will determine the fate of Lawrence’s book’s in the two countries.
The book has its fascinating points – taking us back to World War II, then moving forward to a chilling night spent hiding in a car, and to a warm party where Jackie takes a moment to lust after her brother-in-law, Bobby (yes, this is another book that hints at the existence of Jackie’s erotic interest in Bobby.) But the cast is so wide and sprawling that it often feels like we’re tracking too many characters (there are six leads) over too wide a space of time. The book is quite long, which makes sense for its scope, and yet I think it could have chopped out around a hundred pages and enjoyed a snappier narrative.
But I can’t fault MacLeod: even though I was occasionally distracted by the flowchart necessary to keep all of these characters straight, I felt absolutely compelled by the narrative she wove. Her Jackie is very compelling, as are her ruminations upon the poetry of erotic desire (the book well earns its ‘hot’ rating here). In spite of the length of the tale, it’s a compelling and important narrative to bring forth in a world where we argue every June about how explicit Pride celebrations should be, and indeed what obscenity itself is. Tenderness is recommended for any reader who wants to slide back into the sixties and learn a lesson about how important freedom of expression truly is.