Try a little tenderness: After Fifty Shades of Grey, how can a novelist refresh the language of love?
Author Nikki Gemmell decided to update DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover
Friday 31 May 2013
How even to begin to take on that depth charge of a novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover; especially now, in this post-Fifty Shades of Grey world? How to freight the writing of sex with freshness and renewal and audacity - with surprise? Aren't we meant to have seen it all by now, done it all, thought it all? How to update the novel's setting from the forbidding environs of Nottinghamshire's Wragby Hall, with its necklace of grubby coalmines encroaching so dynamically upon it?
DH Lawrence despaired that his world of 1920s England was being leached of all tenderness. Tenderness was, in fact, the original title of his novel, and the pursuit of that most gentle and generous of words is at its core. Lady Chatterley (Connie) explains to her gamekeeper lover, Mellors, what's so extraordinary about him:
"Shall I tell you what you have that other men don't have, and that will make the future?"
"Tell me then," he replied.
"It's the courage of your own tenderness, that's what it is."
Her husband, Clifford, is devoid of it. Nothing in his statically interior world of men-who-talk, of philosophising and writing and books, is instinctive, warm, spontaneous; nothing is deeply felt.
Lawrence's novel is about two people awakening to a new way of living through mutual tenderness, in an exterior world that's uncracking after the long winter hibernation. It's about two people uncurling from previous sexual experiences that have deadened them. There's the shock in the novel of a man who loves women: loves their bodies, cherishes them, is not afraid of them.
Men like that are still hard to find and, when we do, don't we women know it. Lawrence champions a way of being that's instinctive, loving, unafraid – and deeply attuned to nature. Men of that ilk are so rare, still. These issues are just as relevant today and I galloped with the updating, Lawrence's sincerity as my tuning fork. It's a genuineness that's compelling even now, 85 years later. He didn't set out to shock, but merely to be deeply honest.
With my novel I Take You the truth, in all is rawness and audacity, is where I began, even if it pushed me into areas that required a lot of courage to name. A scribbled mantra of Milan Kundera's was above the writing desk: "In anguish I imagine a time when art shall cease to seek out the never-said." Another text of brazen eroticism, The Story of O, informed the narrative. My book begins with a scenario not dissimilar to poor, deluded O's, but my protagonist's journey is about climbing away from that world. That had to be the arc of the story. My Connie finds a connection sanctified by tenderness, and is repaired by it.
In this Fifty Shades era we're flooded, of course, with a brazen new openness, but is there any emphasis on tenderness? Everyone's seemingly doing it – in increasingly bold ways. Where does it all go from here? Experimentation increasingly permeates the public sphere; the Homebase kink invades suburban bedrooms, and there's raw talk at school gates. The voracious devouring of erotic texts feels revolutionary in terms of women's reading; the dawn of a new age of… what?
Could it be that this new decadence represents a tipping-point of some sort? What follows? A flinch into extreme conservatism; a vast reining back? Or a return to a more natural way, with how our bodies look and what we do with them.
That was what interested me in I Take You: re-finding a more animal, instinctive, earthy way. In Lady Chatterley's Lover, the first seduction scene between Connie and Mellors, deep in the woods, is almost hypnotically silent; everything is deeply felt. By the end of the episode, Connie is cracked open, as is Mellors ("the man lay in a mysterious stillness"). Two people have been brought alive through transcendent, utterly natural, deeply tender sex. Don't we all dream of that?
So, to the setting. Who truly inspires wonder and envy and visceral hatred now? Whose secure, pampered, blinkered little world would we like to see called into question? Not so much the upper classes, which seem fractured, crumbling, messy, failing; a product of their own lack of steely, thrusting, 21st-century ruthlessness. But then there are the bankers…
Until recently, I had lived in London's Notting Hill. Raised three kids in it. Had an illegal key to one of its ravishing beautiful communal gardens, thanks to a succession of good-hearted and better-off American friends who could never get their heads around the wilfully anti-democratic nature of the set-up: all that caged-off green, so outrageously unfair! I had often toyed with setting a modern Lady Chatterley in one of those enchantingly verdant expanses, within the banker world that inspired such envy and loathing among the wider community.
I was fascinated by the endless basement extensions with their screening rooms and nanny's quarters; the four cars, one just for the motorway; the frenzied push to get their children into the best schools; the Guy Fawkes effigies at the communal-garden bonfires wearing Burberry and Barbour; the masculine brusqueness and one-upmanship. Oh yes, my Clifford would be a hedge-fund manager. An American. Dwelling in his leonine way within this shockingly unequal world, careering towards the tinderbox of the London riots of summer 2011. In a borough ring-fenced by new worlds, where white Brits are a minority. Lawrence's Mellors was fascinated by the social inequality he saw all around him; I'm a coalminer's daughter from a country a little more meritocratic than this one, and I am also.
So, to the man at the heart of the tale. The male lover. Make him the keeper of one of those exclusive patches of green, its gardener. Oh, they'd watch them, the manicured wives of Notting Hill, sitting on their lovely rolling lawns with their toddlers in Bon Point and the hovering Filipina nannies. Who better to represent the disgruntled male of the moment? The uneducated, white, working-class British male; the man one assumes would be driving his white van. Who doesn't know how to pronounce words like Cadogan and Cholmondeley. Who's a keen observer of the world around him. Who's utterly surprising as a lover. Step forward, my modern-day Mel.
Connie, the devoted banker's wife, stumbles across him in her communal garden. Finds her voice, strength, audaciousness; her erotic individuality. The vivid core of who she is. The discovery of a female sexual voice, a generation or two earlier than Lawrence, was seen as deeply destructive and unsustainable – just look at Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Strindberg's Miss Julie. But the discovery of that potency is something women are just as fascinated by today; often we don't find our sexual voice until our thirties, forties. Still.
Connie's journey is one of empowerment, be that emotional, psychological or sexual. And what's almost as shocking as the erotic honesty in Lady Chatterley's Lover is Connie's evolving attitude to class and wealth. Eventually, she longs to reject it all. For love, for warmth; for the chance to live fully, richly, simply, sensuously. Somewhere closer to the earth. Again, that magnificent relinquishing is relevant today - it's explored in I Take You.
Lady Chatterley's Lover remains shocking. There are passages, still, that tug at the belly and quicken the breath. Why? Their fearless honesty. Luminosity doesn't kick in until a third of the way through, though. As Samuel Beckett said of another Lawrence work, the novella St Mawr: "lovely things as usual and plenty of rubbish."
There was a lot of rubbish to be discarded as the book was updated. But I appreciate novels that may be messy and deeply flawed, yes, yet are alive, vivid, sparky; books that have an explosive force about them. Lady Chatterley's Lover does, still, and I hope my own I Take You has something of that too.
The written word has to compete with so much else now, to renew itself. Why not with the shock of the truth? Lady Chatterley's Lover still has the power to stun. It's raw and confronting and makes your stomach churn and has you examining your life and your relationships afresh. All power to books that get under your skin.
'I Take You' by Nikki Gemmell is published by Fourth Estate (£12.99), as are her previous novels 'The Bride Stripped Bare' and 'With My Body'
*This article appears in tomorrow's print edition of Radar magazine
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