A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I recently re-read The Victorian Chaise-Longue for a podcast I recorded on the topic (shameless plug for it – check out ‘Tea or Books?’ if you want to hear it compared to The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher) and thought it worth a quick mention over on Vulpes too. Because it’s a real curio in the history of writing-about-being-a-woman, as well as intriguing venture into the fantastic.
The novel was Marghanita Laski’s last published during her lifetime (in 1953), though she wrote various other plays and stories and non-fiction before her death in 1988. I don’t know why she published no other novels in the final three decades and more of her life, but it certainly wouldn’t be because she had ploughed the same furrow too often; her novels (almost all of which have now been republished by Persephone) are strikingly different from one another.
The Victorian Chaise-Longue is a slim novella, and focuses on a character called Melanie. She has a young child (mostly looked after by a nurse), has recently recovered from TB, and is being a bit spoilt by her husband and no-nonsense-but-also-a-bit-of-nonsense doctor. The opening line of the book is: “Will you give me your word of honour,” said Melanie, “that I am not going to die?”
She says with a little concern, but mostly knowing that he is going to assure her that she will be fine. The line would have quite an impact whatever the context, but it grows in stature as the novel continues. The doctor’s only recommendation for treatment is that she get more sunlight by moving to another room for part of the day – and lying down on a Victorian chaise-longue that sits neglectedly there. There reader sees her memories of buying it in an antique shop, in a moment that seems almost mystical, in the way she is drawn to it.
She sleeps on it. She wakes up. She is no longer in a world she recognises. As the reader is quickly aware – and as she gradually discovers – Melanie has been transported to the age of the chaise-longue; she is in Victorian England. And she has not simply time-travelled; she is someone else. She is Milly Baines.
There are similarities – both have TB, for instance – but they are not the same person. Laski doesn’t need to answer all the questions that the career fantasy writer might consider essential in the creation of a world (though Melanie does ask some of these – who occupied Milly’s past? Do the events here affect the future/present?) What is more interesting is how Laski contrasts the treatment of women – in society, in family, and in medical practice.
The Victorian Chaise-Longue is extremely subtle in its telling. There are various relationships and events that have happened to Milly (before Melanie arrives in her body) that Laski doesn’t spell out, but leaves us to discover piece by piece – it is very clever, and must have taken some restraint on Laski’s part, and trust for her readers.
Equally interesting is the way in which Laski compares the 1950s and the 1860s – because, of course, the 1950s is no longer modern. In the framework of the narrative, it is held up as the present day and thus a model of everything that the 1860s was not, in terms of medical advancements and expectations of women; the modernday reader sees the two dates on a continuum to 2016. Future readers will, of course, push that date further on. There is much to think about, even in this brief, story-driven novella.
But one query I had the first time I read it, and this time, was: is it scary? P.D. James’s introduction calls it terrifying; other readers have said the same. I didn’t find it scary for a moment. I’d be intrigued to hear from anybody who did, to find out which bits struck fear into them. But is it good? I absolutely think so – a great demonstration of the power of restraint and efficiency in fiction writing.