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Monday, July 12, 2010

Little, Odd, Excellent: The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Maghanita Laski

Marghanita Laski’s strange little book The Victoria Chaise-Longue has got me thinking about eras and about links and divides between generations. Before I even started to read, I noticed that it was first published in 1953, the year that the Queen was crowned and my mother was born. How long ago that sounds. The book itself explores how social mores and the place of women had changed between the Victorian age and the modern world of the early ‘50s. I am thankful to Richard at Richard’s Books for recommending such a muse worthy novella to me.

With only 99 pages, The Victorian Chaise-Longue must surely be the tiniest Persephone there is. I think that I will take a risk and say that it is the most interesting Persephone book that I have read so far. It is a domestic novel but it is not pedestrian. Its a little bit odd, but whatever is wrong with that?

The story focuses on a few hours in the life of Melanie Langdon. Melanie is a young barrister’s wife and she is pretty, spoilt and makes a profession out of being helpless. She is the kind of girl who is always being looked after by somebody, and as the book opens she is in the care of her patrician GP, the mildly lascivious Dr. Gregory. We soon learn that Melanie is recovering from TB, an illness which almost terminated her recent pregnancy and which has kept her apart from her baby son from the moment that he was born.



All very straight forward, or so I thought. Before long, the book changes direction entirely and with the assistance of an antique chaise-longue, Melanie is transported to the Victorian age in which she has become somebody else – a Milly Baines. The reader experiences with Melanie the claustrophobia of entrapment – the prison of knowing oneself to be one person while all others believe one to be somebody else. Gradually, the sorry tale of Milly Baines begins to unravel. Melanie learns, like a detective in a story what her own character has done and how she has been punished.

I never fully understood whether we are to believe that Melanie has become a time traveller, or has been reincarnated and is recalling her previous life, but I don’t think that this matters too much. Now that I have turned the last page, I understand why Richard recommended this book, and why he mentioned it in the same breathe as The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns. Like The Vet’s Daughter, it is not a book about the paranormal, but it uses paranormal ideas to explore very real issues; morality, identity, entrapment, mystery. It borrows from the thriller genre but it s not a thriller – it is suspenseful and dark, but it is not frightening. It is a domestic novel, but it is not an aimless one. Laski uses domestic images to sign post the most powerful of human fears and links. She is not simply a chronicler of days gone by, she seems to raising objections about them too.

Melanie finds her life as Milly impossibly restrictive and frustrating. Milly has advanced TB and can barely move. She is kept in a stuffy airless room and is subject to the care of characters bound to her by duty rather than love. Melanie, whose pre illness days were filled with furniture shopping and relation visiting is horrified that she has somehow been stolen away from her own era and condemned in this way. She comes to realise, as does the reader, that the life paths of Melanie and Milly have not been so very different but that the strictures of their respective societies are. Melanie’s ordinary life events are Milly’s dreadful transgressions and the life of punishment which is so awful for Melanie to experience, is usual for Milly. Will Melanie ever escape? Well, I can’t give that one away; interested parties must read for themselves and I hope that they enjoy it as much as I did.

The illustrations are the rather beautiful Persephone edition and endpaper and the even more beautiful Marghanita Laski. Other opinions can be found at Serendipity; Booksnob; Things mean a lot; A Book a week; Novel Insights; Farm Lane Books; The Genteel Arsenal; Green Road Books; and Fleur Fisher.

24 comments:

  1. Great review Hannah and thanks for the link! You simply must try Little Boy Lost next, I know you will love it. It's one of those books that haunts you for weeks afterwards.

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  2. Sounds interesting -- I read her To Bed With Grand Music recently and liked it a lot. And what a beautiful photo you have found!

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  3. Great review. I don't know why I don't own this yet.

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  4. I just wanted you to know, Hannah, that I found Wartime Women in a used bookstore today and immediately snatched it up to buy due to your review a while ago. I know this comment has nothing to do with this particular post, but I wanted you to know that I got a book just because of you! And I am SO EXCITED to start reading it asap!

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  5. As I enjoyed The vet's daughter, I am intrigued by the review of The Victoria Chaise-longue.
    I shall 'sniff it out'!

    Thank you for writing such tantalising reviews!

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  6. That sounds wonderful! I need to get my hands on this book. I'm in the midst of Crime and Punishment and I need a smaller and compelling read to help me when I'm bogged down.

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  7. Aren't those Persephone books just beautiful? I am definitely going to have to read this one. It sounds like an excellent story with a lot of richness to it. Thanks so much for this wonderful review! This one goes to the top of the wish list!

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  8. I haven't got round to reading anything by Marghanita Laski yet, despite seeing so many positive reviews of her books. I have Little Boy Lost on my shelf, which I'm looking forward to reading, but this one sounds wonderful too.

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  9. The Victorian Chaise-longue sounds interesting, but disturbing. I was fascinated by Marghanita Laski when she used to be a radio panellist on The Brains Trust etc.(late 50's)I can't remember anything about her intellectual ideas, but I can still hear her voice in my head. If I chose a Persephone Book it would be one of her books, I think.

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  10. Oooh . . . adding this one to my ever-expanding book list. Great review!

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  11. Wow! What a great review! It sounds like such an interesting read that packs alot of punch for such a small book. I'll definitely have to check this one out! Cheers!

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  12. Morning all and thank you for visiting.

    Rachel - thanks I expect that I will and I have read such good things about it - ok - note taken...

    Harriet - thank you, I always try to find a picture of the author, I guess that I like to look at the face of the person whose work I am reading and I was so taken with this shot of Laski. I have got To Bed with grand music somewhere at the bottom of my suitcase - I bought it because I loved the name and am much looking forward to it.

    Thomas - thank you, I suspect that you would enjoy it...

    Aarti - I really hope that you like it - since then I have read quite a bit on mass observation (recommended and directed by the marvellous Verity!) and think that it was such a fascinating project.

    Aguja - you are welcome.... When I forst started reading I didn't really understand the comparison to the Vet's Daughter but as it developed I saw it - it is the strange use of the paranormal and also the way in both cases the author borrows from genres without being part of them. Also - and I didn't mention this in the review there is the issue of how the central female characters are preseneted - in both cases they are quite helpless and effectively entrapped by family authority figures and social conventions... so actually there is quite a lot and I see just why Richard first suggested it. I really hope that you enjoy reading The Victorian Chaise-Longue some day - it is a super book.

    Amanda - this one is certainly small and compelling... Enjoy Crime and Punishment - that is an ambitious but great read in my opinion.

    Zibilee - you are most welcome - enjoy!

    Helen - es, I have read a lot of good reviews of Little Boy Lost and suspect that Laski may turn out to be a bit of a favourite.

    Linda P - I have never heard her voice - I would love to though. Now I am trying to imagine it!

    Inkslinger - enjoy!

    Nadia - enjoy as well!

    Thanks as always for all of your comments and keep 'em coming.

    Yours from a chilly and gloomy London,

    Hannah

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  13. This Persephone is one which really appeals to me too - the concept sounds so intriguing and I know I'll really enjoy it. It also reminds me of one of my favourite children's books 'Charlotte Sometimes', by Penelope Farmer in which the Charlotte of 1963 is transported back to 1918 into the body of Clare.

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  14. This will have to be my first Persephone! I recently got my catalogue and simply could not decide (budgetary restrictions keep me from getting them all.) I can't wait to get this. Thanks, Hannah!

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  15. This was one of the first Persephones I read and thought it so eerie. I kind of like open endings. Now that I read your post Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper comes to mind. It's the same sort of claustrophobic story where you're not entirely sure what's real. I've yet to read any of Laski's other books but I read a short story by her that had a similar feel to it as well. I'm going to have to check out The Vet's Daughter now!

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  16. I've been meaning to read a Laski forever. Well, not forever, but since Persephone Reading Week. Saw some amazing reviews on both: The Victorian-Chaise Lounge as well as To Bed With Grand Music. Am keener to read the latter first...

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  17. this sounds wonderful! I loved your review. Little Boy Lost was really unforgettable for me, so I'm guessing I'll love this!

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  18. Great review and very striking authorial photograph!

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  19. I read this two or three years ago, and found it intriguing and very different from the other Marghanita Laski I had read (The Village, which is also excellent). But I am now eight chapters into The Vet's Daughter, which I like even more. Nothing paranormal yet, but the most unobtrusively compelling narrative voice. I had a hard time putting it down last night!

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  20. Thank you for including my link, Hannah! Fabulous review. The sense of suffocation I felt when reading this book has really stayed with me. I so admire Laski for evoking that so well.

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  21. Morning all and thank you for visiting and reading and of course commenting.

    Escaping into a book - I have never tried Charlotte Sometimes - thank you for the tip off!

    Grad - isn't it *so* hard to choose?! Hope that you enjoy.

    Danielle - you are not the first person to mention The Yellow Wallpaper in connection with this and it sounds very interesting, I may have to have a look...

    Another Cookie Crumbles - I do have To Bed With Grand Music (which I bought mainly because I love the title) and hope to read it soonish...

    Daniel-Halifax - glad that you also enjoyed Little Boy Lost - I really must get around to that soon

    Mel U - thanks so much and yes I was very pleased when I found that picture!

    Rob Hardy - thanks so much - I will have to look up The Village as well. So pleased to read that you are enjoying The Vet's Daughter - and that is a lovely description of the narrative voice - unobtrusive and compelling. It would be great to hear what you think when you are done.

    Nymeth - You are so welcome Nymeth - your blog is full of gems.

    OK all - have a great day

    Hannah

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  22. I really want to start reading some of her books. I've read a few Persephones but not enough and she has a bunch in that range. Thanks for the great review.

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  23. This book sounds great Hannah, I wonder if I will be able to get a copy anywhere...thanks for sharing :)

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  24. This is great do you have a catologue if so I would love one to share with friends and family,chaise longue

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