First published in 1953, Marghanita Laski’s The Victorian Chaise-Longue is a nightmarish tale. The book, described by Penelope Lively as “disturbing and compulsive”, begins in the 1950’s. Melanie Langdon is recovering from tuberculosis after the birth of her first child with husband, Guy. On the way to a medical appointment, Melanie ducks into an antiques shop. She spots a Victorian chaise-longue in the basement. She feels an instant connection to the piece of furniture, and buys it.
On the advice of her doctor, her hours in bed can be stopped and she opts to rest on the newly-installed chaise instead. As she sinks into its velvety-down, she feels her eyelids droop, and falls asleep. On waking up, the scene is transformed. A yellow fog burrs at the window. A woman, claiming to be her sister, looms over her. Melanie’s name is now Milly, and the year is 1864. Melanie assumes it is a particularly vivid dream, but Laski describes the Victorian era in microscopic detail. Scratchy wool blankets, the lurid rose wallpaper and the rancid bread and butter being offered to the invalid. Melanie realises, with a growing sense of panic, that this is not a dream. It is something else. Milly also has tuberculosis, but at the mercy of ineffective Victorian doctors, a recovery is not expected.
Born in 1915, at the height of her career, novelist Laski was better known as a cultural commentator appearing regularly on television. In the introduction to the Persephone edition, crime writer P.D. James points out that Laski never wrote the same book twice. Each novel (Love on the Supertax, Tory Heaven, Little Boy Lost, The Village and The Victorian Chaise-Longue) is vastly different from its predecessor. Laski wasn’t afraid to experiment across theme and genre.
Outside existing genre lines
This ties in with the sense that The Victorian Chaise-Longue operates outside existing genre lines. Horror, but no gore. Time travel, but no adventure. Supernatural, but Laski details the physicality of Milly’s world down to the finest touch; no ghosts here. The form plays with our expectations too: is it a novella or a (particularly long) short story? It sits somewhere in between. But where most writers would require more space to build tension and atmosphere, Laski’s novella is deeply claustrophobic, right from the first page.
At the heart of the story is an existential terror. The book ends, not with a definitive conclusion, but with the extension of several possibilities. Is what we are reading, a kind of alternate reality? Hallucination? Has Melanie’s recovery been over-estimated – has she lapsed into a coma? Patients have reported dreaming of a whole other life. The fact that Melanie / Milly hovers between life and death adds to the feeling of crisis. As Melanie struggles to make herself understood, Laski’s ticking clock grows ever louder. Would death for Milly also mean death for Melanie? The two women are connected through a splinter in time, but Laski allows us to surmise for ourselves whether the connection is merely psychic, or deathly corporeal.
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