Friday, 8 April 2011

Penguin no. 1835: The Victorian Chaise-Longue
by Marghanita Laski

        'Will you give me your word of honour,' said Melanie, 'that I am not going to die?'
        The doctor said, 'It's a stupid thing to ask of me. Of course you're going to die, and so am I, and so is Guy, and in the end even Richard is going to die. What you're really asking me is whether you're going to die soon of tuberculosis, and to that the answer is no, though I'm not giving any word of honour about it.'

This is only a short book - 125 pages in large font, and it doesn't take long to read: I chose it for the hour-long train journey down to the University, and completed it during the return leg. In retrospect, I wished I had chosen something else. What I really needed was a book to help me forget where I was, to insulate me from the tedium of the journey, but here was a book which bored me as much as the trip. At no stage did I feel myself to be engaged or diverted; I never felt particularly interested in the story or the characters. I didn't find the atmosphere eerie and claustrophobic, I found it artificial and I thought the discussions lacked in depth and insight. In summary, the story seemed tedious and trivial, the book vapid. But it is only fair to note that this seems to be a minority position, and in general The Victorian Chaise-Longue is more favourably reviewed.

The author doesn't seem to like the main character very much; she is certainly not portrayed very sympathetically. Melanie is childlike and silly, but knowingly so: she uses an affectation of pretended helplessness to manipulate the men around her, to ensure she is cossetted and indulged, and to maintain her position as the focus of everyone's attention. She lives an indulged life; all the descriptions in the early pages of the story emphasise this. Her surroundings are soft, feminine, pink, luxurious. Her husband is a wealthy and attractive barrister, making his way in the world.

But behind this portrayal of the couple and their lifestyle there is a kind of sneer: a suggestion of shallowness, people with too much time and money. Like bowerbirds, attracted by shiny objects, they conceive of the past as a treasure-trove to be ransacked for curiosities: their house by the canal, their furniture and their furnishings. These items reflect their taste, but they are shorn of their historical context. On the day before she is imprisoned by the diagnosis of her TB, she chooses the Victorian chaise-longue from amongst the items on display in the basement of a small antique store, although there is the suggestion that it is the item that has chosen her.

And so the story begins with Melanie's desparate plea to the doctor to confirm that she will not die, and that she can resume a normal life with her husband and child, a child born during the illness and only ever seen but not touched. As a reward for the first negative TB test result she is allowed to leave her bedroom, and spend the afternoon resting on the Victorian chaise-longue. She awakens from her afternoon nap into a nightmare: her consciousness is trapped in another woman's body, a body much sicker than her own, and also trapped in another time. The past is no longer a trinket shop, it is very real: the lack of luxury, sanitation, and refrigeration, the oppressive morality and female powerlessness are all aspects she must endure.

In the world in which she is trapped there is only one accepted path for a woman. No one questions that illness and early death are perfectly reasonable and inevitable consequences of deviating from that path, for enjoying life a little:
"We seem to be together now, she explained, you and I both hopeless. I think we did the same things, she told her, we loved a man and we flirted and we took little drinks, but when I did those things there was nothing wrong, and for you it was a terrible punishable sin. It was no sin for Melanie, she explained carefully, because the customs were different; sin changes you know, like fashion. There can be no punishment for Melanie, only for you, and now the other side of the conversation awoke, the answer came saying, But how do I know this is punishment, I was ill before it happened, would I be well if I were sinless?"
But the notion that people think differently now is no revelation, and who now (rationally) believes that illness is a punishment for sin? This is a book published in 1953. The critique that contemporary middle-class life was trivial and leisured may be just, and perhaps it is a fair observation that middle-class women sometimes affected a deference to men that mocked the true powerlessness of women in the preceding century, but it wasn't enough. The whole story seemed too obvious.

I wonder if the reading of any two consecutive books is independent? The Go-Between was so enjoyable and stimulating, so in a league of its own, that perhaps it was inevitable that the next book I chose would seem vapid in comparison. And so in the interests of fairness, I thought I'd include the links to other bloggers who enjoyed this book more than I did.

Things mean a lot
Book snob
Harriet Devine
A book a week
Hannah Stoneham
Fleur Fisher


  1. Wonderful blog... great job!

  2. I didn't warm to this one either, which surprised me as I've loved all of her other books.

  3. I'm glad to hear that Mary, because I haven't read any of her other books, and it's tempting to avoid an author if you choose the wrong book first off.



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