This disturbing – but compelling little novel, is one I hadn’t thought I wanted to read. I knew however, that I liked Marghanita Laski’s writing, her female characters particularly are very real, flawed and believable, and her novel Little Boy Lost is one of the most poignantly heart-rending novels I have ever read (that’s not a criticism). So, I decided to give it a try – after all it’s very short.
The Victorian Chaise-Longue is generally described as a horror story. The horror lies in the way the story plays upon the reader’s fears of entrapment and loss of control and confusion of identity. That nightmare thing of trying to get people to believe the unbelievable, of having no way out of a situation with only one possible horrifying conclusion.
This is a novel about which it is difficult to write without potential spoilers, and so while I am intending to keep this short – I can’t promise the following won’t be a tad spoilery.
It is worth keeping in mind that I am just about the last person to ever read a horror story, and yet I really enjoyed it (though it is rather shuddery). The Victorian Chaise-Longue isn’t really a horror story by modern standards. It is instead, a quietly disturbing novel, cleverly psychological, it also has something to say about women’s lives and their positions in society during the two periods in which it is set. In the hands of a modern writer, I suspect everything would have gone a little OTT and been drawn out for 400 pages, Marghanita Laski is wonderfully subtle, and restrains herself to not revealing everything. The Victorian Chaise-Longue is far more powerful, in my opinion, for such handling.
Melanie Langdon is a young 1950s wife recovering from TB. She constantly seeks reassurance of her doctor that she won’t die, pretty and a little spoiled, she is constantly indulged by those around her. She was pregnant when the TB was discovered, and despite concerns, her doctors had allowed the pregnancy to continue. Her son Richard was born seven months earlier – since when Melanie has barely seen him. Her days are spent in bed, where she looks forward to her husband Guy’s visits, the nanny coming to hold Richard up at the door for her to see, and the continuing good reports from her doctors. Melanie has everything she could wish – apart from her health, which appears to be slowly returning, her life is one of privilege.
With her condition improving, her doctors agree she can leave her bedroom in the afternoons, to lie in the sun in the drawing room. The drawing room is where the Victorian Chaise-Longue has been put. A large, old fashioned piece of furniture, rather ugly with a scrolled back and cross-stitch embroidery cover.
“Through the open window the spring poured in. From her couch, bathed in the soft sweet air, Melanie could not see the canal that lay beside her home, but it flowed through her imagination, dark and still and beautiful. From the water on the far side, a rough bank rose steeply to a bombed, still desolate waste, and from one of the brambles that sprawled all over it, a branch curved high and free to lie across the blue sky. Suffused with sunlight faintly swaying across the pale blue sky. Drowsy, Melanie looked at the flowers and the sky, and the noises of the city – the soft continuous roar of traffic, the whine of the milkman’s electric cart that stopped and started in the street behind – died away with her slow beatific loss of immediacy.”
Melanie had bought the chaise-longue in an antique shop the day before she received her TB diagnosis. On that day, Melanie had been aware of a fleeting memory which swept over her as she first came into contact with the chaise-longue. At first, the reader takes this memory at face value, though it seems vaguely out of place – which in time we realise it was.
On the afternoon, that Melanie is carried by her husband to lie on the Victorian chaise-Longue in the afternoon sun, she falls asleep, and when she wakes up, nothing is what it was.
“She opened her eyes and it was dark. I am still asleep, she thought, and she shut her eyes again; but soon she realised that it was not now the delightful chaos of sleep still imposed on her brain. Now, this time, I am really awake, she said, and again it was dark, darkness charged with a faint foul smell.”
Melanie has woken up in the body of another woman, a woman who lived in the Victorian era – the 1860s – and like Melanie is lying on the chaise-longue, a victim of TB. Melanie finds herself in the body of Milly Bains, with the thoughts and longings of Melanie. The room is unfamiliar, yet known, the people around her unknown and yet gradually familiar. There are things which have happened to Milly in the past which neither we nor Milly can be sure of, some disgrace she has brought to the family, a reason why her sister is so coldly disapproving. It is like we have stepped into the middle of a story having entirely missed the opening chapters. Like Melanie, the reader isn’t always sure what is going on, this is particularly clever as it heightens the sense of claustrophobic uncertainty. Melanie – tries to believe she is in a nightmare – for as long as she can, before the true horror of her situation becomes apparent.
I was surprised actually, at how much I enjoyed this novella, and while it won’t be my favourite Marghanita Laski novel, it has renewed my appreciation for a gifted novelist who wrote several very different novels.