Volatile Rune

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The High Price of Dreams of Freedom

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Freedom to write in 1930 was a complicated business.   There were laws, there were censors.  And there was a man called D.H. Lawrence who fell foul of them with a book called Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

A Review of Alison Macleod Tenderness

This is a book that the author herself describes as a ‘dialogue across time with Lady Chatterley’.

‘And so he was exiled, made fugitive, a ‘man on the run’ – only he no longer had the breath with which to run.’

The exile is D.H. Lawrence himself, having been  told by Scotland Yard that he faced arrest if he returned to Britain.    He dies in Cap D’Antibes. If you have to die – which let’s face it most of us do – that seems as good a place as any.  Lawrence didn’t think so.  He missed England. England, My England.  He missed the landscape, the fog, the Englishness of being English, whatever that looked like.

‘He was dying of chagrin, of defeat, of a smashed heart. England was killing him. His love for it.  His loathing of it.’

This is a fiction with biographical overtones or a biography with fictional overtones.  It builds layers of narrative around three main areas.   The deathbed remembrances of the exile;  Jackie Kennedy, strangely still sufficiently unfamous still to be able to slip into the courtroom where the Lady Chatterley trial is taking place (unnoticed by any except an F.B.I. agent); and the story of a young Cambridge undergraduate called Dina who wants to specialise in Lawrence’s work, and who is also related to the Meynell family.  The common thread is Lady Chatterley.

Dina dreams of meeting the exile.

“She should like to suggest that Lawrence’s notion of ‘tenderness’ – significant enough to have once been the working title of Lady Chatterley’s Lover – was in fact the very concept upon which the novel, his ‘bright book of life’, depended; that he and his friend Katherine Mansfield had shared this notion of tenderness’ in relation not only to life, but to art itself.”

A sort of sub- scandal which the author became embroiled in – apart from Lady Chatterley –related to the thinly disguised life details of the Meynells in his story England, My England.  Lawrence exploited the details of Meynell lives after the family had hosted him and his wife Frieda at their home in Sussex at some expense and trouble to themselves. They woke up one morning to find themselves in print in all but name.  Lawrence had prophetically killed off one of their number in a rather gruesome manner, a sad portent of a tragedy which indeed came to happen.   At least this is what Macleod writes in her book.  It seems likely to be largely true.

A large part of the work – some 200 pages in fact – is given over to a recounting of the Lady Chatterley obscenity trial.  The idea of the law being a moral guardian over works that ‘had a tendency to deprave or corrupt’ was very strong and the penalties for being found guilty of obscenity were fines and/or prison.  Of course Lawrence himself had already died by the time of the trial but his publisher – Sir Allen Lane for Penguin – took a huge risk with his personal freedom.   The Judge  was evidently biased against the publication of the book. On hearing the Jury’s verdict he refused to make an order for the costs of the trial in favour of the defence –   the amount involved was some £13,000 – an enormous sum of money in 1960.   A useful reminder of how hard won are the literary freedoms we now take for granted.

I am sadly ignorant of much of D.H.  Lawrence’s writing.   The Meynell section of this book was lost on me since I was unable to make the connections which I felt Macleod constantly invited the reader to make.   There is an explanation of this aspect of the story later on in the book but I found I had lost interest by the time I got there.  Tenderness does make a good read but at 600 pages it is not a short read!  Macleod wanders from sub-plot to sub-plot.   The story I most enjoyed was about Mel Harding, an FBI agent, who manages to get one over on the Bureau.  You may wonder what on earth that has to do with Lady Chatterley – but you’ll have to read Macleod’s book to find out.


I recently read Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy.  An autobiographical rendering of her difficult life rendered, I thought, so unselfpitying as to feel almost offhand in places.  The account is written in three volumes entitled, Childhood, Youth and Dependency. I stayed up late to read this it was so compelling.

The writer grew up in impoverished circumstances in Denmark around the time of the 2nd World War.  It was a time when no-one had much in the way of possessions – wealth was the privilege of a very few.  So in a way, Tove Ditlevsen’s upbringing seems quite ordinary for a working class woman during that period in time.  She has for example no room of her own and shares sleeping space with the family living quarters. She is constantly being told by her mother who to see and not to see; although her brother receives an education she is not expected to need one.  There are  strict curfews as a teenager.   From the age of 16  she is expected to earn money in a series of dull jobs and then to pay rent at home.

It sounds tough. I’m sure it was tough.  But normal for then.

Ditlevesen cannot wait to leave this claustrophobic home with her domineering mother behind.  She leaves as soon as she is able to work, for a succession of dreary bedsit rooms one of which is owned by an ardent admirer of Hitler.    Although this gives her the freedom to write and see her friends when she wishes, it brings its own challenges.

From such an inauspicious beginning Ditlevsen nevertheless dreams of making it as a poet and author – an outcome which seems very unlikely for a working class woman in that era.

Yet against all the odds, she succeeds.   She marries the editor of the first magazine to accept her poems,  notwithstanding the fact that he is a great deal older than she is.   This man is many decades older that the author but it is hardly unknown for women to marry to escape penury.   So nothing particularly extraordinary so far.   Ditlevsen’s life definitely gets more extreme.

She achieves literary success.  Poems, stories and novels greatly outlast her first  marriage.   Second and third marriages come and go with alarming rapidity, including three children that the writer is not able to care for properly as a result of becoming addicted to the opioid Demerol, a dependency that comes about during her second marriage and which involves a long spell in rehab.

What is it about other people’s lives? Other people’s struggles that makes us want to read about them?   Good autobiographical writing must be the hardest thing to do, and to do it as well as this – in the midst of the chaos – even more so.   It is the clarity with which people seem to be able to bear witness to their own lives which I rather admire.  And rather envy.

I found The Copenhagen Trilogy  on Laura Frey’s Reading in Bed




The Volatile Muse

Poetry, literature, film and all things in between

Runes are ancient scripts, magical signs for secret or hidden laws.   I chose a name which I felt brought to mind the infinitely variable nature of the written word.


The Volatile Muse

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