BOOKS : FICTION : Tribulations after the trial is over

LADY CHATTERLEY'S CONFESSION by Elaine Feinstein, Macmillan pounds 10.5 0
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The Independent Culture
D H LAWRENCE's Lady Chatterley's Lover opened with a world war (First) and Constance Chatterley's love affair with a young German intellectual. Lady Chatterley's Confession, Elaine Feinstein's worthy sequel to the 1920s shocker, closes with a world war (Second) and Constance Chatterley's love affair with a young German intellectual. A familiar narrative is thus not merely extended through time, but swept full circle back to its origins, assuming, en route, a watertight symmetry markedly absent from Lawrence's original. This is good news for those who like their love stories to have a neat conclusion, but disappointing if you thought the essence of Lawrence's tale was the unending chaos of romance rather than its ultimate resolution.

Picking up a year after Lady Chatterley's Lover leaves off, Feinstein transports Lawrence's wayward lovers and their new-born daughter to Italy, where Mellors finds work as a gamekeeper on a Tuscan estate. Here the seeds of social, sexual and intellectual discord inherent in their relationship begin to root, with Mellors slipping inexorably into a morass of bitterness and cruelty, and Constance, who only ever wanted "to love and be loved", struggling vainly to contain and survive her partner's crushing nihilism. As they argue and make up, love and hate, their traumas are echoed in the violent social confusion of 1930s Italy, where the rise of fascism provides an insidious mirror to Mellors's own paranoia-driven power-playing.

It is the curse of any sequel that it will be compared to the work it is succeeding; and, since that work was great enough to invite a sequel in the first place, probably be found wanting. Feinstein has skilfully drawn the sting from the critic's tail, however, by steadfastly refusing to emulate Lawrence, or carry his story forward on any but her own terms. Her characters are familiar, as is much of their emotional baggage, but Mellors becomes something altogether less than he was under Lawrence's guidance - less beguiling, less electric, more truculent - while Constance emerges as someone far more real, understandable and sympathetic. The fact that Feinstein narrates in the first person, unlike Lawrence who used the third, imbues her heroine with an immediacy lacking in her original incarnation.

Perspectives, too, have changed. Lawrence homed in on the dialectic of passion, whereas Feinstein is concerned with its abuse, painting a bitterly truthful, unromantic portrait of a tortured woman inexorably attracted to her torturer. The possibility of such events was inherent in the original - "I have such a terrible mistrust of the future" Lawrence had Mellors say - but they are developed in an unexpected way, only slightly undermined by a falsely upbeat ending.

Beautifully written and tragically insightful, this is, one suspects, the sort of sequel of which Lawrence would approve. Those hoping for a plethora of vulgarities and a juicy obscenity trial, however, will be disappointed. Not a single John Thomas in 314 pages. Shame!