Posts Tagged ‘Maud Cairnes’

One of the most recent publications to come from the British Library Women Writers series was Strange Journey by Maud Cairnes. Yet another gem within a collection that just keeps turning out absolute winners.

I feel that there should be a class of fiction that Strange Journey fits into – but I can’t really think of an accurate term. It isn’t science fiction or magical realism, and yet there is a slightly whimsical, fantastical element to it. Readers of books like The Love Child, Lolly Willowes and Miss Carter and the Ifrit – will thoroughly enjoy it though I’m sure. So, if this 1935 novel is a type – then it is a type I very much enjoy.

Have you ever, just for a moment wanted to change places with someone else? That idea is at the heart of this deliciously entertaining little novel. In this body swap comedy, the minds of two complete strangers, each from different social worlds randomly switch places. Polly Wilkinson and Lady Elizabeth have never met, never heard of one another. When middle class housewife Polly, sees the smart, sleek car in which Lady Elizabeth is being driven, she wishes just for a moment to swap places with whoever is inside, to experience the leisured ease that they must surely enjoy.

“Suddenly I felt a longing to change places with her, to get into that big, comfortable looking car, lean back in the soft cushions I felt sure that it contained, while the chauffeur made it glide away through the dusk to some pleasant house where there would be efficient servants and tea waiting, with a silver teapot, thin china, and perhaps hot scones, nice deep arm chairs to sit in, and magazines lying on the table.”

 So, when a little later, following a moment’s dizziness, Polly finds herself in the body of another woman, in a large country house, she is utterly bewildered.

How Polly (as Lady Elizabeth) copes with not knowing who anyone is, where her bedroom is and what just happened a few minutes earlier is hilarious. Those around her seem to pick up on moments when Elizabeth is just being a little odd – saying strange things, reacting to things in a way in which she wouldn’t usually, and think no more of it. The dogs however know something’s up and growl and bare their teeth at Polly. Maud Cairnes has a lot of fun with this story, Lady Elizabeth – who never plays bridge, suddenly and surprisingly trouncing everyone only never to sit down to bridge again, the accomplished horsewoman falling screeching from her mount, and screaming the place down, as the birds shot down on a shoot, rain down around her head. Meanwhile Polly is suddenly a wonderful pianist, and a huge social success at dinner with her husband’s boss. There’s a lovely moment when Polly overwhelmed by the choice of jewels in Lady Elizabeth’s jewellery box just puts it all on. Later someone, thinking she has done it as a joke calls her a Christmas tree.

“She then opened a big jewel case in which there were several tiers. I thought it looked like a real treasure chest, when I saw brooches and necklaces, bracelets, ear-rings and rings, all in velvet compartments. I just stared. Late for dinner or not I had no intention of hurrying over my choice. I took a sort of collar of emeralds and diamonds, and put it round my neck; it looked wonderful. Then I found some emerald and diamond ear-rings, long ones, and some bangles; I put two or three of these and a big diamond brooch like a spray, that cheered up the dress a lot.

Then I saw the pearls — three long ropes of them — and one shorter one. I put the ropes on and looked happily at my reflection in the mirror.

“I think I want something on my head now,” said I, wondering if it was a grand enough party for a tiara.

Foley, who had been looking rather stunned, smiled respectfully as though I had made a joke. I gathered that it was not a tiara occasion.”

It takes Polly a while to realise that while she is being Lady Elizabeth, Lady Elizabeth is being her. Polly returns to herself, to find her living room furniture has been rearranged, dinner invitations accepted and the children told extraordinary tales – that she must now carry on with.  Polly realises that Elizabeth’s marriage isn’t very happy, but senses that Elizabeth wants it to be – can she help? Lady Elizabeth meanwhile is doing her own little bit of meddling – paving the way for two lonely people to make one another very happy. When the inevitable happens, and the two women meet – they decide to try and find a way to control the gift that has been thrust upon them.

Of course, class is a big part of this novel – and it helps if you understand all the subtle differences in Polly and Elizabeth’s worlds. Those subtleties would have been more apparent to contemporary readers than twenty-first century ones, though that whole fish out of water element still works, even if you aren’t. Polly and her husband are not exactly the Clampetts after all, they are a nice middle class couple with two children, on a reasonable, though not excessive income, living in a nice suburb, they can afford to pay a daily and Polly has no need to go out to work. Lady Elizbeth is from an entirely different world, a large country house, a home in London, with hunting and riding part of everyday life. As someone who reads a fair bit of fiction from between the wars the differences in class were perfectly evident. However, some of the greatest subtleties are in speech, and these are harder for the twenty-first century reader to pick up on. So I was very glad for Simon Thomas’s afterword in which he explained those very things I had been a little puzzled about. This story is perfect for lots of little social faux pas and so when Polly (in the body of Lady Elizabeth) asks a butler to announce her as Lady Forrester, I had a feeling it was wrong, though I didn’t know why it was wrong, again Simon helped me out.

This novel is an absolute hoot – thoroughly entertaining, light without being silly. I only wished it had been a little longer.

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