The Victorian-Chaise Longue by Marghanita Laski was one of my very first Persephone reads back in January 2003, to be exact my fourth from the six that Bookhound had bought me as a surprise for that first Christmas after completing my OU English Lit. degree. There was me wondering whether I would ever again be able to read a book like a normal person (ie someone who wasn't mad enough to study for six years and work full time and launch three teenagers into the world...crazy times, how on earth did I manage it)
It was indeed a happy and fortuitous time because these books really were exactly what I needed, so when the Endsleigh theme a few months ago was 'What the Midwife Read'...and I needed to find a book published in the year of my birth, and one which the midwife who delivered me could conceivably (sorry) have sat reading while waiting for me to appear...and with only two days to go to the Endsleigh meeting and still no book chosen, I shelved other possibles and plumped for the...well the shortest, The Victorian Chaise-Longue
Interestingly for 1953 I could have chosen from amongst others...
Katherine ~ Anya Seton
The Kraken Wakes ~ John Wyndham
The Go-Between ~ L.P.Hartley
Warleggan ~ Winston Graham (Poldark No 4)
Jane & Prudence ~ Barbara Pym
Setting the contemporaneous 1953 social scene on my choice, and apart from the Coronation...
The Prime Minister was Winston Churchill...
The North Sea had flooded inland and killed hundreds of people...
Queen Mary had died..
The first James Bond novel Casino Royale was published,
Myxomatosis had reached the UK and made a start on our rabbit population (to little effect it would seem)
England won the Ashes for the first time in nineteen years..
The England football team suffered its first defeat in ninety years (clearly that's when the rot set in)
The Piltdown Man was exposed as a hoax..
Laura Ashley sold her first printed fabric...
I had a brief moment of wondering who my peers might have been and came up with several well-known fellow Coronation year babies (besides Bookhound) so on my team are novelist Sebastian Faulks, Mike Oldfield of Tubular Bells fame, Victoria Wood our comedian extraordinaire, Dylan Thomas who can shout from the sidelines, and Kathleen Ferrier who can sing the National Anthem. I haven't thought of anything for Tony Blair yet... let's not go there.
And what about music...what might the Midwife have been playing on her Dansette..
She Wears Red Feathers...
How Much is the Doggie in the Window..
and Frankie Lane singing I Believe
By now I have spent so much time doing all this that I only have an afternoon left to read the book, so I took myself off out of the melee, drove the six miles into town and tucked myself up in my favourite corner of the Bedford Hotel, ordered a pot of hot chocolate and some cake and settled down for a comfortable read.
I am sure some of you will have read The Victorian Chaise- Longue and be familiar with the story of pretty, spoilt and rather over indulged Melanie Langdon and her husband Guy. When TB is diagnosed by her doctor early in Melanie's pregnancy the men agree that she may keep the baby as long as she rests completely, and that when the baby is born he must be cared for by a nurse.
The era initially feels blurred until subtle references seem to place it firmly in the 1950s when of course TB remained a killer disease. En route to her doctor's rooms on the day of her diagnosis Melanie has made an impulse purchase, a chaise-longue, rather ugly...
'The Victorian chaise-longue had been stacked upside-down on top of a pile of furniture, its clumsy legs threshing the air like an unclipped sheep that had tumbled on its back..'
and then there is the ominous stain..
'...a brownish stain on the seat, discolouring a pale pink rose and the dark red felt underneath, as if something had been carelessly spilt there...'
So there the chaise-longue sits, in Guy and Melanie's home, until some time after the birth of the baby Melanie is considered well enough to be carried from the confines of her room to lie on her purchase. As she drifts off to sleep and into a nightmare Melanie inhabits an alter-ego Milly who is lying on the same chaise but in 1864...
What follows might be the most claustrophobic and heightened sense of powerlessness and entrapment ever to grace the pages of a book, far more so on this read than I recollect from my last one. As well as being a brilliant delineation of that dreamtime incapability, where events can't quite be comprehended, nor can they be influenced, the story can arguably be said to make a powerful, pre-1960s feminism statement about women's lives. In many ways Melanie is as trapped and disempowered as Millie. There is reader awareness too, a slow dawning of Millie's plight and it almost had me shouting aloud from my cosy corner seat...it's him... it's HIM...and of course I won't tell you the why or how.
There is uncertainty and panic and I felt the whole gamut, sitting as I was in this very nineteenth century setting, as well as sensing something akin to the fear that Marghanita Laski also felt she needed to experience in order to write the book, taking herself off alone to a remote house to do so.
I haven't looked on a chaise-longue in quite the same covetous way since I first read the book, now even less so (though if someone gave me one I'd say thank you and promptly lie on it). I had to shake myself back into reality, feeling quite relieved that I wasn't sitting on anything remotely like one, whilst thinking what an extraordinary and disturbing book, and in a way I hope the midwife didn't read it while she waited for me to arrive...she would not have been in the right frame of mind to greet a screaming me into the world.
Talking of Persephone Books... I know some of you have already booked for this but just to let you know that I will be talking at a Persephone lunch on Wednesday October 15th . My theme will be Mothers and Children in Persephone books and I am really looking forward to re-reading a few this summer.
Meanwhile I would love to hear your thoughts on The Victorian Chaise-Longue and perhaps Marghanita Laski's other novels also published by Persephone, Little Boy Lost and The Village two of my firm favourites.