Wednesday 3 November 2021

Review by Joe Bedford of "Tenderness" by Alison MacLeod

It’s telling that Lady Chatterley’s Lover, named Tenderness in its working-title and concerned in so many ways with the theme of tenderness, should have been the subject of such a vicious campaign of censorship. The trial that surrounded the novel’s unexpurgated release put our conception of tenderness on trial – a tenderness defined to exclude the physical, visceral, expletive nuances of human intimacy. It is this trial that Alison MacLeod explores in her latest novel, both through D.H. Lawrence’s life and works, and through the support Lady Chatterley drew later from First Lady Jackie Kennedy, herself a woman ‘on trial.’ The intertwining of these two lives, touching one another across time, elicits not just our sympathy for those whose inner-selves are deemed unacceptable, but a wider feeling that any of us, at any time, might fall vulnerable to the subjugation of our intimate needs. For MacLeod, this threat of subjugation is something built into the fabric of Western civilisation – into our structures of family, work, government and society. The pressure on the free-thinking (or free-feeling) individual is so great that it appears as though the whole world is willing them to fail, to concede. In this sense, there’s something fundamentally challenging in MacLeod’s worldview, resisting the self-censorship that Lawrence felt acutely and that many of us, like Jackie Kennedy, still feel circumscribing our daily freedom to live and be. MacLeod’s integration of Lawrence’s prose speaks to that inner-voice whispering beneath our reserve and tact, and works to interrogate the problematic lines between social norms and intimate needs. Like the mechanisms of self-consciousness that muddy our lives, the voices of both Lawrence and Jackie Kennedy reflect our desires, pains and confusions in equal measure. In that respect, MacLeod’s novel is tender not in the manner of a gentle lover, but in the way we are tender after the most passionate, open and human forms of intimacy.

About the reviewer
Joe Bedford is a writer from Doncaster, UK. His short stories have been published widely, including in Litro, Structo and MIR Online, and are available to read at

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