The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski

I have long wanted to read Marghanita Laski, the British writer and broadcaster who came to prominence in the 1940s and ‘50s. (Five of her novels are currently in print with Persephone Books.) My original intention had been to start with her 1949 novel, Little Boy Lost, which focuses on a man’s search for his lost son in post-WW2 France. But then, back in December, the Backlisted team featured Laski’s 1953 novella, The Victorian Chaise-Longue, on an episode of their podcast, and the decision was made for me.

It’s a difficult book to say very much about without revealing key elements of the premise; so, if you’re thinking of reading it and would prefer to know as little as possible before going in, look away now. What I will say upfront is that the experience of reading this novella feels somewhat akin to being trapped in a terrifying COVID fever dream from times past. Ideal lockdown reading for the more sensitive among you!

The premise of this chilling story is a simple yet highly effective one. In the early 1950s, Melanie, a young mother recovering from tuberculosis, falls asleep, only to wake up in the body of her alter ego, Milly, some ninety years earlier.

As Melanie realises that she is trapped, effectively imprisoned in the body of a dying woman, she begins to doubt various ‘truths’ about her existence – more specifically, her identity, her sanity, and perhaps most troubling of all, her ability to return to the life she once knew.

Given that this is a short book, it would be unfair of me to reveal anything else about the plot – I’ve probably said more than enough already. Instead, I’ll try to convey something of the story’s tone and underlying themes.

A little like the woman in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, Melanie (in the 1950s) finds her freedoms restricted by a patronising doctor and an equally paternalistic husband – both of whom treat her like a child. Nevertheless, after a long period of recuperation in bed, Melanie is to be allowed a slight change of scenery in the afternoons – a move to the drawing-room where she can lie on the chaise-longue, an antique piece from the Victorian era. It is while lying on this couch that Melanie falls asleep, setting the eerie nightmare in motion…

A common voice, a cruel voice, assured and domineering. Not a voice to be conquered with superior strength but the nightmare voice that binds the limbs in dreadful paralysis while the danger creeps and creeps and at last will leap. I am asleep, said Melanie, ordering her wakened brain to admit this and be still, her closed eyes to see not even the ugly green and scarlet and yellow patterns under too tightly pressed eyelids, and then there was a heavy weighted rattle and almost simultaneously another, and consciousness of light shot through the close lids and forced them open. (p. 43)

Milly’s situation in the 1860s is even more restricted than Melanie’s, something that invites comparisons between what is deemed acceptable for a married woman in the 19th century vs the 20th. Laski is very skilled in her use of language, drawing on all the senses to convey the horror of her protagonist’s position – from the ‘bumpy hardness’ of the couch and the harsh woollen blanket covering the woman’s body to the fetid smell enveloping her surroundings.

Melanie folded the bread-and-butter and tried to eat it. The butter was nasty, over-salt and slightly rancid, seeming to have absorbed some of the room’s foul smell of which she was continually aware. But I must eat, she told herself, I must overcome this sick dizziness and feel strong. If this body is dead, I am still, for the moment, imprisoned within it. (pp. 92–93)

There is also the question of what constitutes the ‘present’ vs the past and the future. Is Melanie trapped in a terrifying dream, or has she somehow gone back in time to an earlier incarnation of her life?

I must always have been Milly and Milly me. It is now that is present reality and the future is still to come. But if I have to wait for the future, if it is only in time to come that I shall be Melanie again, then that time must come again too when Sister Smith leaves me to sleep on the chaise-longue, and I wake up in the past. I shall never escape – and the eternal prison she imagined consumed her mind, and she fainted or dozed off into a nightmare of chase and pursuit and loss. (p. 97)

Seeking a potential release from entrapment through prayer, Melanie even wonders whether she has been set some kind of challenge by God, possibly as a penance for past sins. The acceptability of a woman experiencing desire and ecstasy are also questioned as confusion kicks in, with Melanie’s mind going into overdrive.

In summary, this is a very unnerving story, one that relies on our fears of entrapment – a feeling augmented by the loss of personal agency and any grip on reality. It captures the terror of feeling helpless and imprisoned, when everything we previously believed about our existence is destabilised and undermined. In short, a psychologically disturbing read for a dark winter’s night.

My copy of The Victorian Chaise-Longue was published by The Cresset Press, but the book is currently available from Persephone Books.

35 thoughts on “The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski

  1. gertloveday

    Thanks for your great review. Having a huge overload of books at present I think I will listen to the Backlisted podcast. You put me on to that and I love it. My daughter does too. We were drawn in by the Nigel Molesworth podcast and have listened to many since then.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’ve very welcome! I think that’s an excellent way forward, especially as there are several other books calling you right now. Eley Williams (The Liar’s Dictionary) was the guest on this particular episode, and she proved to be a great champion for Laski’s text. There’s quite a lot of discussion about Laski herself, if I recall correctly. (I caught it when the episode went live in November but haven’t returned to it since to avoid any merging with my own responses to the book.) She sounds fascinating, if a little eccentric!

      Reply
  2. Claire 'Word by Word'

    This sounds enthralling, what an interesting premise and mystery for the reader, to be in what feels like a realist world, but might be a past life or a dream or part of the journey of the present.

    No matter, coming out of something like that will cause a change in perspective, just as we are all experiencing by having many of our freedoms taken from us.

    I am quite fascinated by cycles of entrapment and freedom, something that occurs between generations, where the experiences of one generation impacts how they raise the next and on it continues. How will the current generation of children I wonder, be deemed old-fashioned by their parents? This current climate of fear we are experiencing, may become with hindsight, a defining moment between two generations.

    Wonderful enticing review Jacqui. I’ve resolved my notification problem, as you can see. :)

    Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        It’s a very intriguing book, not least because of the cycle of thoughts the central character experiences as she’s laying on the sofa. (There must be a Freudian connection there, signalled by chaise-longue being a metaphor for the psychiatrist’s couch.)

        Like you, I’m interested in these kinds of cycles, particularly the idea how the experiences of one generation impacts on the next. I suppose that’s one of the reasons why I find books from the 1940s, ’50s and early ’60s so fascinating, a time when our societies were trying to recover from the devastation of war. It’s the social change that I find particularly interesting – the breaking down of some of the traditional class barriers, the opening up of opportunities for women, the need to find new ways to live, etc. etc.

        I’m sure our current crisis will accelerate the pace of change in certain areas – we can already see it in the uptake of online communications such as Zoom. But I hope it will lead to a reassessment of some of the bigger socio-political questions around what kind of society we want – the relationship between individual responsibility and that of the state etc. I do fear for the younger generation, though – particularly in the short-term with the impact on education and job prospects. Plenty for us to consider there, for sure…

        Reply
        1. Brian Joseph

          This sounds extraordinary and very original. The plot sounds compelling but it also seems like there are a bunch of interesting themes floating around .

          The fact that we may relate all this to some of what is going on with Covid makes it all more interesting.

          Reply
          1. JacquiWine Post author

            Yes, exactly! It’s funny how we can find new resonances in literature like this depending on our own circumstances (and the wider global situation) at the time of reading. You’d find it very interesting, I think – particularly the psychological aspect.

            Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha, yes – there are similarities, for sure. In some ways, The Yellow Wallpaper is the more powerful of the two because its brevity makes it feel so intense. But the Laski is still a very effective piece of writing, especially when mirroring how our thoughts can spiral out of control, spinning from one source of anxiety to another in a seemingly endless sequence…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ali was saying the other day how Laski is a little like Sylvia Townsend Warner in the sense that all her books seem quite different from one another. Unlike writers like Barbra Pym or Elizabeth Taylor, she doesn’t have a single ‘signature’ style – which makes things interesting, but also tricky in terms of where to start!

      Reply
  3. Caroline

    Wonderful review, Jacqui. This sounds so chilling. Those stories with patronizing doctors always get to me or the idea of being trapped. I see how this can also speak to us in our current situation. Another of for the wish list.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think you’d find it quite disturbing – anger-inducing, even, as far as Melanie/Milly is concerned. It’s an interesting twist on the themes of control and loss of personal freedom with some unexpected resonances for the here and now.

      Reply
  4. Jane

    I read this a couple of years ago and think about it often, I think it’s the most chilling book I’ve ever read. The idea of being trapped while everything around you is so ordinary would make you feel so alone. I see you mention The Yellow Wallpaper which I haven’t read yet, but will! (I’ve read Little Boy Lost which was very good but completely different, I had forgotten they’re by the same person)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I can imagine! Oddly enough, I ended up having a nightmare about it afterwards. Not right away, but about a week after I’d read it. Clearly a story that had wormed its way into the subconscious, as these things sometimes do…

      In a way, I’m glad to hear that Little Boy Lost is completely different as I’m not sure I’d want to read another one quite like this – there’s only so much terror we can take at the moment, especially given current events!

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    I love Marghanita Laski’s novels, and although this isn’t my favourite, I do think it’s very good. It is highly effective as you say, that feeling of being trapped is portrayed brilliantly. It is certainly compelling.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I’m looking forward to reading Little Boy Lost — which, from the sound of things, is a very different book. It sounds as if Laski lived a very interesting life, particularly given her foray into broadcasting!

      Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review Jacqui! As you know I was a bit underwhelmed by this when I read it, and it probably did suffer from me making comparisons with The Yellow Wallpaper. I felt it didn’t quite know what it wanted to be and so fell between a number of stools. But I’m glad you enjoyed i so much, and that’s a very pretty edition! :D

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is indeed a lovely edition – a lucky find on the internet on my part! Sorry to hear you that found the book itself somewhat underwhelming, but I get what you mean about the comparison with The Yellow Wallpaper. The Gilman is definitely the stronger of the two – possibly due to its brevity and sense of compression?

      Nevertheless, I think what Laski’s novella does very well is to convey a feeling akin to a kind of sleep paralysis, halfway between being asleep and awake, when you’re conscious but unable to move. The feeling of being ‘trapped’ in a terrible nightmare but sufficiently conscious to register fear. I also like the sense of ambiguity about time – and what is happening to Melanie / Milly. To say that I fully understand it myself would be a lie, but the questions it raises (via the character’s cycle of thoughts) are interesting to consider!

      Reply
  7. Julé Cunningham

    The theme of patronizing male doctors keeps cropping up in my reading-related life and making me particularly grateful for female doctors these days. How awful to imagine having no other options.

    I’ve read ‘Little Boy Lost’ and really enjoyed it, and though it is very different from this book, is pretty intense in its own way. You did an amazing job with making it sound enticing without giving too much detail!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! It’s quite a difficult one to talk about without revealing too much detail. And yes, I’ve seen one or two fairly patronizing male doctors in my time, alongside some more understanding ones too. It’s worrying in this day and age, just how much impact a healthcare professional’s manner can have on a patient’s levels of confidence and trust – aspects that ultimately feed into their wellbeing…

      Returning to Laski for a moment, I have a copy of Little Boy Lost on the pile and am very much looking forward to it. All credit to Persephone for keeping her in print!

      Reply
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  9. 1streading

    This sounds interesting! I don’t know much about Laski but I remember when I started teaching there was a set of Little Boy Blue in the department which means it must have been taught at some time.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think she was quite highly regarded in her day. Alongside and an active career as a writer, journalist and broadcaster, Laski was also a prolific contributor to the OED. Apparently she ‘carded’ some 250,00 quotations for the dictionary during her lifetime!

      Reply
  10. buriedinprint

    Hunh. That’s true, it would be a somewhat different reading experience, with COVID lockdowns in our experience now. My copy was via Persephone, from back when it seemed like their list was small enough that I’d be able to read them all. *grins at self* Little Boy Lost is still on my TBR. I’ve heard it’s a real pageturner too, but for different reasons (obvs, there couldn’t be more than one story like this one).

    Reply

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