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.