(All Persephone Books are in grey jackets, where they differ is the end papers which feature designs from the year of publication or thereabouts. This is the early 1950s fabric design from Sandersons and Sons which is used for The Victorian Chaise-Longue. It resembles the cream curtains described on page 3 of the tale.)
Category: Fiction/Novella – Paperback: 99 pages – Publisher: Persephone Books – Source: Public Library
First Published: 1953
Of the four Persephone books I borrowed from the library at the start of December, thinking they’d be good for the quiet end of year, this is the third I’ve read. It’s also been by far the most complicated reading experience I’ve had yet with a Persephone title.
It’s a slim little book, just 99 pages, but it came home with me as a bit of a bookish gamble – I really wasn’t sure if Laski’s gothic style would be to my tastes.
The story begins with Melanie, spoilt, silly and doted on by her new husband, recovering at her very pretty and fancy home. She has had TB, got pregnant despite the doctor’s advice, put her own treatment on hold through the pregnancy and now the baby is born she is being treated again. She’s managed to risk both her own life and the baby’s, toyed with and lied to the doctor and her loving husband, and yet somehow she’s won the gamble and everything looks hopeful for the future.
As a treat for her first negative TB result she’s been promised that she will be allowed out of her bedroom where she’s been cooped up for months and she is picked up and installed upon the Victorian chaise-longue, an ugly piece of furniture she bought months ago when she felt it ‘call to her’ in an antiques shop. When she sleeps she is Melanie in 1953, when she wakes she is trapped in the body of Milly in 1864.
What follows is Melanie trying to understand where and when she is and why she has been transported this way. She uncomfortably struggles to find where Milly’s mind ends and her’s begins, learns what she and Milly have in common and comes to understand just how lucky she was in the 1950s to have been treated for TB which is deadly in the 1860s.
“We seem to be together now, she explained, you and I, both hopeless. I think we did the same things, she told her, we loved a man and we flirted and we took little drinks, but when I did those things there was nothing wrong, and for you it was a terrible punishable sin.”
The idea at the heart of the story – time-travel-via-sofa – is unusual, thought-provoking and a great plot to build on. The gothic tone is actually balanced pretty well between horror, claustrophobia and dawning realisation. The historical elements are jarring enough to be believable. The rising hysteria of Melanie did get a little cloying but was tamped down each time it approached silliness. The comparison of the two women (both have pre-marital sex and lie about it, both have TB, both lie to their doctor and delay treatment for pregnancy, both refuse to confess or repent for their sexual ‘immorality’) is a little heavy-handed to make Laski’s points about how life had changed for women in 100 or so years but I forgave it as Laski teases the information out rather than dumping it in the reader’s lap.
It was the ending that threw me so much though, so much so that it has taken a week of thinking about it to give it a fair review and rating. Last week I would have given it a 4/10, now I find myself giving it a 7/10.
Initially I was incredibly frustrated with the book’s wispy, New Age-y ending (which doesn’t really resolve anything) and the wasted opportunity of Milly and Melanie never really ‘meeting’ despite being in the same mind for most of the book. I couldn’t help feeling that the internal logic of the story just wasn’t as robust as the ideas.
The biggest example of this: if Milly ‘calls’ to Melanie so forcefully that she buys this huge, ugly chaise-longue which doesn’t fit in her house why does Milly never ‘call’ her again or ‘talk’ to her once she is in the Victorian era? It suggests a dialogue opening up but never follows through.
I still don’t really know what Laski wanted me to understand or learn from the story beyond how women’s lives have changed.
But after five days of thinking about it now and then, talking about it and reading other books… I think I like it significantly better than I did when I turned the final page. I’ve remembered phrases and quotes and not been able to shake the sense of atmosphere Laski created for the Victorian home of Milly. In truth I feel a little haunted by the story. So for this reason I am giving it a 7/10.
I’m not sure if I would want to read another book by Laski any time soon… but I really can’t forget this one.
Rating: 7/10 (Book Review Scale)