What Connie did next

Why is DH Lawrence's excitable heroine the flavour of the month? Cathy Newman investigates; Lady Chatterley's Confession by Elaine Feinstein Macmillan, pounds 10.50

If you want to damage your health this autumn, how about an overdose of DH Lawrence? Lawrence wrote three versions of Lady Chatterley's Lover and three more sequels or rewrites of his succes de scandale have appeared in the last year: Craig Brown's The Hounding of John Thomas, not a guide to Mellors's member but the tale of his son; Spike Milligan's parodic squib, John Thomas and Lady Jane, with a cast of Spitting Image puppets and a script of Christmas cracker jokes, or Elaine Feinstein's scholarly sequel.

Craig Brown's Mellors became a "high class bloody grocer''. In Lady Chatterley's Confession, he doesn't even have to work out how to use a till as Constance finds him a job as gamekeeper on Count Bellaggri's estate in Florence. The book traces the decline of the couple's relationship and Connie's eventual replacement of Mellors with Kurt Lehmann, a German Jew at risk from persecution in fascist Italy. At the end of the original, Connie waits to marry Mellors. At the end of Feinstein's sequel, she waits to marry Kurt. The next sequel will presumably find a wizened Connie still waiting, needlework in hand...

A Lawrence scholar, Feinstein seems at first to have created a genuinely Lawrentian artefact. Her Mellors taps Lawrence's apocalyptic tune: "It'll have to be blown up," he tells a captive audience during an earnest post- prandial discussion. "And then maybe we can build a society on the ruins." The cycle of violent arguments and passionate reconciliations also pays homage to a Lawrentian belief in "strife'' between partners. Feinstein recycles themes from the author's whole canon: this is not so much a sequel as a collage of Lawrence's work. Mellors's charged relationship with Emily recalls Will's intensity with his daughter Ursula in The Rainbow, and his habit of "throwing ideas about'' with local fascists is indebted to Lawrence's tedious Kangaroo, where Harriet and Somers emigrate to Australia and become embroiled with a fascist leader.

While Feinstein rehashes her predecessor's plots, her style is more Hemingway than Lawrence: "The face was closed to me. Angry.'' Or: "I had no lies prepared for such a casual meeting. What to invent?'' Readers may be relieved to escape Lawrence's purple prose, but Feinstein's idiom is bland by comparison, and her imagery is uninspired. Hilda, for example, is "as elegant as a pencil''. Thin, maybe, but elegant? Unlike Lawrence, Feinstein is evasive about sex: "I could feel his body pressing against my own'', Connie coyly confesses before the curtain comes down at the end of the chapter. The earlier heroine by contrast "felt his penis risen against her with silent amazing force and assertion and she let herself go to him''. Feinstein doesn't let herself go to Lawrence.

Instead, she exorcises him. Mellors dies and the cult of the phallus dies with him. Connie's speculation that his emotional problems stem from an upbringing scarred by physical violence suggests Feinstein has rewritten Lawrence for a politically correct age. Should we conclude that Connie's admission, "all I ever wanted was to love and be loved'', points to child abuse? Creating a Lawrence for the Nineties is laudable, but it doesn't come off. Feinstein lays her book at Lawrence's shrine, but makes it clear that her idol is tarnished.

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