I feel the need to apologize that The Persephone Project has gone a little awry. Last Sunday we really should have been talking about ‘The Home-Maker’ by Dorothy Canfield Fisher and instead a month and a week late we are back with ‘The Victorian Chaise-Longue’ by Marghanita Laski. Oops. This seems all the more ironic as the 6th in the Persephone series is actually one of, if not the, shortest books they have published. Yet do not let the size of this book fool you, like the chaise-longue of the title this book is very deceptive and packs much more in than you would think – hence I am glad I decided to read it again rather than upload an older review (look how many comments I used to get, what has gone on there?). In my memory ‘The Victorian Chaise-Longue’ was a ghostly spooky tale, now having re-read it I am in fact wondering if it is not a small tale where horror meets a sci-fi time travelling edge. Not what you would expect from a Persephone title, but I am learning to expect the unexpected.
“Will you give me your word of honour,” said Melanie, “that I am not going to die?” Almost from the very first line of ‘The Victorian Chaise-Longue’ Marghanita Laski gives you a sense of foreboding and the impression that this is not going to be the most settling of reads. At some unnamed time around the late 1940’s/1950’s we find Melanie in bed after recently suffering from a particularly bad bout of TB, an illness she had mildly before the ill advised birth of her son, which has led her to being in bed for such a prolonged period of time. However the last test results have shown some signs of recovery and so, as a treat, Melanie’s doctor has agreed to let her be moved to a more engaging part of the house where she may get more sun and fresh air yet must be able to rest. So Melanie finds herself in one of the parlour rooms on the chaise-longue that she bought, spur of the moment, on an antiques shopping trip when she should have been looking for a cot. Yet when Melanie wakes from a sleep on it she finds herself not in her home but somewhere quite other, somewhere in the past, and as someone else far weaker than her though also in a consumptive state. And so the confusion and terror begin…
‘The Victorian Chaise-Longue’ is a book that I think works on two levels, and shows the depths of this novella. In the first instance this is a tale of horror and terror, and it was meant to be. As P.D James mentions in the preface, Marghanita Laski actually took herself of to a remote house in the middle of nowhere to write this so she could feel vulnerable and frightened and try to pass this on to the reader which I think she does excellently. We have all woken up after an afternoon nap feeling groggy and disorientated (or in my case thinking it is the next day, having my body clock thrown out of all context and subsequently being a royally mardy so and so) yet to wake up in somewhere unknown, being called ‘Milly’ and slowly realizing you are in the past – the Victorian period as it transpires – full of consumption, shut away from the world being watched over by a sibling who seems to hate you for some unknown reason would be quite enough for anyone. (Actually I wouldn’t mind waking up in the Victorian era just for a day or two as long as I had had some jabs beforehand.)
What Laski does her, which I think is so brilliant, is that she slowly allows Melanie to learn more and more about Milly. There is the initial fear of waking up somewhere so other without your loved ones, however as she puts the jigsaw puzzle of Milly’s life together further we see Melanie has even more to fear. It is that horrid slow trickling sense of dread that we have all had at some point, even over something minor (like thinking your Gran’s house might have a gas leak and suddenly sitting bolt upright by her bedside at hospital as you think you left the grill on – as an example completely plucked from thin air) and so we empathise with Melanie even though initially we are not sure what we make of her. Laski’s second master stroke as I discovered on this second read.
Melanie is quite a flighty thing when we first meet her, in fact the words ‘insipid’ or ‘vapid’ might be the words that spring to your mind initially. Yet as we read on we realise there is more to Melanie than we might think. She has a steely core, she knows what she wants and is a bit spoilt too. She is told not to have children while she has a mild case of hopefully curable TB, and ignores it. She also plays the men around her, shes independent enough to go shopping alone for what she likes and going against doctors orders, but she plays herself as the frightful fool when she wants her own way, making men think they are the better sex. It’s actually a bit nauseating.
‘How clever you are, darling,’ said Melanie adoringly. ‘You make me feel so silly compared with you.’
‘But I like you silly,’ said Guy, and so he does thought Dr. Gregory watching them. But Melanie isn’t the fool he thinks her, not by a long chalk, she’s simply the purely feminine creature who makes herself into anything her man wants her to be. Not that I would call her clever, rather cunning – his thoughts checked, a little shocked at the word he had chosen, but he continued resolutely – yes, cunning as a cartload of monkeys if she ever needed to be. But she won’t, he told himself, and wondered why he felt so relieved to know that Melanie was loved and protected and, in so far as anything could possibly be sure, safe.
What I thought Laski did this for was that clearly she wanted to look at how roles for women had AND hadn’t changed. It is too easy to label this book showing how much things for women had moved forward and how awful things were in the Victorian period. Actually I think more reviews have done that than Laski because she shows that women like Melanie may be in a much better situation than the likes of Milly but they still have to play the game of making men feel superior in order to get what they want. What I think Laski is asking in hen will the sexes truly become equal and until then won’t women always been in some sort of confinement in one sense or another?
Maybe I have gone too deep? However is was that statement on women that I came away really thinking about on the second read and I liked ‘The Victorian Chaise-Longue’ all the more for having that hidden depth in a genuinely oppressive, confusing and claustrophobic tale of time traveling terror. The more and more I have thought about this book the more of an understated masterpiece it seems.