Review: The Victorian Chaise-longue by Marghanita Laski

Of all the books in the Persephone catalogue this is the one I’ve been looking forward to reading the most. Maybe it was the word ‘Victorian’ that appealed to me (I’m slightly obsessed with the Victorian period) or maybe it’s just that it has sounded so fascinating in every review I’ve read. I’ve seen this book described as a horror story – ‘a little jewel of horror’. For me, though, it wasn’t so much frightening as unsettling and creepy.

Melanie Langdon is a young mother recovering from tuberculosis in bed at her home in 1950s London. When the doctor tells her she can move to another room for a change of scenery, Melanie decides to lie on the chaise-longue in the drawing room, an ugly item of Victorian furniture she had purchased in an antique shop.

Melanie lies on the chaise-longue and falls asleep – but when she awakens, something has changed. She’s still lying on the same chaise-longue, she still has TB, but it’s now the year 1864, she’s being cared for her by her hostile sister Adelaide, and her name is no longer Melanie – it’s Milly. Is Melanie dreaming? Remembering a previous life? Has she really travelled back in time and become somebody else?

Who is Milly Baines? came the gradual inquiry, and at last she looked, as she had not dared to before, at what was immediately around her, examined, tested, interpreted the feeling of this body of Milly Baines in which was imprisoned the brain of Melanie Langdon.

I have to admit I’m not sure that I fully understood what was supposed to be happening in this book. After thinking about it though, maybe that was the point – the reader isn’t supposed to understand because Melanie herself doesn’t understand. The book conveys a sense of confusion, panic and disorientation and I could really feel Melanie’s helplessness as she lay on the chaise-longue, trapped in Milly’s body, desperately trying to work out who she was and how she could escape.

What makes Melanie’s story so disturbing and nightmarish is that although she has apparently been transported back in time, she has kept all of her twentieth-century ideas and sensibilities. As Milly, she finds herself a victim of the repression of Victorian society and there’s nothing she can do to change her situation.

At only 99 pages, this book can easily be read in an hour, but there’s so much packed into those 99 pages that the story will stay in your mind for a lot longer than that.

Recommended

Review: The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier

What would you do if you came face to face with yourself? That’s what happens to John, an Englishman on holiday in France, when he meets his exact double – a Frenchman called Jean de Gue.  John agrees to go for a drink with Jean but falls into a drunken stupor and wakes up in a hotel room to find that Jean has disappeared, taking John’s clothes and identity documents with him!

When Jean’s chauffeur arrives at the hotel, John is unable to convince him of what has happened – and ends up accompanying the chauffeur to Jean de Gue’s chateau, where the Frenchman’s unsuspecting family assume that he really is Jean de Gue.  Naturally, they expect him to continue running the family glass-making business and arranging shooting parties – things that John has absolutely no experience in.  Before long, it starts to become obvious that Jean is using John as a scapegoat; Jean’s family and business are both in a mess and he wants someone else to have to deal with them.

Throughout the book, I was forced to revise my opinions once or twice about what was really going on. If everything in the book is supposed to be taken literally, then we need to suspend belief at times: could two men really be so identical that even their mother, wife and daughter can’t tell the difference? There is also another way to interpret the story, one which goes deeper into the psychology of identity – I won’t say any more about that here, but if you have read the book this theory may have occurred to you too.

As usual, du Maurier’s writing is wonderfully atmospheric. She has a way of making you feel as though you’re actually there in the hotel room in Le Mans, the grounds of Jean de Gue’s estate in the French countryside and Bela’s antique shop in the town of Villars.

When John first arrives at the de Gue chateau, every member of the household is a stranger to him but we (and John) are given enough clues to gradually figure out who each person is and what their relationship is to Jean de Gue.  From the neglected pregnant wife and the hostile elder sister to the resentful younger brother and the religious ten-year-old daughter, every character is well-drawn and memorable.

Another thing I love about Daphne du Maurier’s writing is her ability to always keep the reader guessing right to the final page (and sometimes afterwards too).  This was a fascinating and unusual story, one of my favourite du Maurier books so far.

Highly recommended

Pages: 320/Publisher: Virago Press (Virago Modern Classics)/Year: 2004 (originally published 1957)/Source: Library book