The definitive caution for any wannabe time traveller.
Publisher: Persephone Books
First Published: 1953
Date Reviewed: 27th February 2011
Melanie is recovering after months of suffering Tuberculosis. She is much better, but when she moves out of the bedroom to sit on the chaise-longue she bought from an antique shop, she wakes up to find herself in the body of a very sick woman in the Victorian times.
The Victorian Chaise-Longue is a rather weird book in the sense that it is confusing and unsettling. It is not really the horror as described when it was first published, but there are some horrific moments in it.
You may come to the table thinking that the book revolves around doctors and medical treatment, I certainly thought that the bad elements would include Melanie being subjected to medical procedures that we have long since abandoned, but Laski makes the issue very simple.
Melanie’s problem is that she doesn’t know why she’s back in time, what the circumstances of the person whose body she inhabits is (except that they are sick), and that she is unable to articulate herself because of the limitations of the body. Melanie is in the body of one Milly Baines, a young woman who of course has no idea of the concept of things we take for granted, for example aeroplanes. Melanie can think about telling the Victorians about aeroplanes but she cannot say the word because it doesn’t exist in the time she is in. The discovery of what Melanie can and cannot do is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book because it involves many different things, not just speech.
As well as the above-mentioned frustration, Melanie spends a lot of time trying to work out exactly why and how she got to the past. The how may be obvious, but the why is not. In fact because the reader’s knowledge is no more than Melanie’s the frustration crosses over from fiction to reality – part of the genius of this novel is that the reader never has more or less comprehension than the character. The topics covered are relevant today in much the same way as in Melanie’s time – the book was written in the 1950’s and the concepts explored match our own current way of thinking so today’s reader can understand the differences between Melanie’s life and Milly’s perfectly.
One topic I’d like to highlight is spiritual ecstasy, because Laski’s writing on it really got me thinking. Melanie likens the feeling of ecstasy after she has had sex to the feeling one has when in deep prayer. The two situations may be poles apart, but you can see where her theory lies in reference to spiritual feeling. I noted down the following quote:
It is the ecstasy that is to be feared, she said with shuddering assurance, it is a separation and a severance from reality and time, and it is not safe. The only thing that is safe is to feel only a little, hold tight to time, and never let anything sweep you away as I have been swept – and perhaps that is how, only how I can be swept back.
From this quote one can understand not just Melanie’s thoughts but also their progression as she moves from one idea to the next. It would be useful for me to say at this point that prior to the switch Melanie was bubbly and comes across as someone who acts on impulse. Thus one can see just how confused her mind becomes as she begins to question the intimate details of who she is and how it might relate to the switch.
There are other concepts that I haven’t covered because I can’t really tell you everything. Suffice to say that, like Melanie, the reader must dissect every last bit of information available.
The Victorian Chaise-Longue is a brilliant little snippet of writing that will leave you wondering for days. The page count may be small but the legacy is huge. It’s definitely made me think twice about wanting to explore the past first-hand.
February 28, 2011, 10:19 pm
Charlie, you’ve made me want to reread The Victorian Chaise-Longue just so I can dissect it over again!
Charlie: I’ve been thinking of re-reading it to see if there is anything I missed, because I’m still thinking about it to no avail.
March 1, 2011, 9:00 pm
I’m glad you enjoyed this. I would agree that it’s disturbing and unsettling rather than a horror story. For such a short book it leaves you with so much to think about, doesn’t it?
Charlie: Yes! That ending is, well you know. I’m still confused about Gilbert and Guy.