TRY A LITTLE TENDERNESS
After how can a novelist refresh the language of love? Gemmell took up the challenge by updating DH Lawrence’s Nikki
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 on 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 is so extraordinary about him: ‘‘ It’s the courage of your own tenderness, that’s what it is.’’
Her husband, Clifford, is devoid of it. Nothing in his static interior world of menwho-talk, endlessly 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 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 its 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 novelist Milan Kundera’s was above the writing desk: ‘‘ In anguish I imagine a time when art shall cease to seek out the neversaid.’’ 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 with a brazen new openness, but is there any emphasis on tenderness? Everyone’s seemingly doing it in increasingly bold ways. Where does it go from here? Experimentation increasingly permeates the public sphere 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 this new decadence represents a tipping point of some sort? What follows? A flinch into extreme