Marghanita Laski’s The Victorian Chaise-longue is a chilling, unsettling tale of time travel, a kind of psychological drama cum horror story where a woman wakes up to find that she has been transported back to an earlier century. It’s a fascinating novella because Laski plays with the reader’s mind without providing the comfort of a neat resolution, but the mood and tone captured makes it a compelling, frightening read.
When the book opens, we are in the 1960s and our protagonist is Melanie, who was recently afflicted by tuberculosis and is limping back to recovery. Atleast we are given to believe so, as evinced from Melanie’s opening lines (“Will you give me your word of honour that I am not going to die?”), a question to which Dr Gregory gives his assurance that she is on the mend.
Melanie is happily married to Guy, a successful lawyer and the couple resides in London in a house by the canal. They have just become parents for the first time. But Melanie’s illness has kept her away from her baby and from experiencing the joys of motherhood and she longs to be united with her child.
Meanwhile, both Guy and Dr Gregory agree that a trip to a brighter clime filled with fresh air and sunshine, notably Switzerland, will do Melanie a world of good. Note that the men make the decisions for Melanie, her views on the matter are not sought. But before embarking on that journey, the doctor recommends that she find a sunny, cheery spot in her home first as a refreshing change of scene, particularly since Melanie has been cloistered in her bedroom for far too long.
It’s around that time that the three spot the Victorian chaise-longue.
It was ugly and clumsy and extraordinary, nearly seven foot long and proportionately wide. The head and foot ends of the seat curled round a little as though to meet each other, raising, above the elaborately carved legs and frame, a superstructure of wine-red crimson felt.
Its Regency ancestor had probably been delicate and enchanting; this descendent was gross, and would certainly have been inadmissible in such a home as Guy’s and Melanie’s were it not for the singular startling quality of the berlin-wool cross-stitch embroidery that sprawled in bright gigantic roses over the shabby felt…
A piece of ungainly furniture that Melanie had purchased at an antique shop at Marylebone, this item is now arranged facing the windows in the drawing-room for Melanie to lounge and relax. And she does so, the languor of the afternoon slowly lulling her into sleep.
Through the open windows the spring poured in. From her couch, bathed in soft sweet air, Melanie could not see the canal that lay beside her home, but it flowed through imagination, dark and still and beautiful…from one of the brambles, a branch curved high and free to lie across the blue sky in the window, dark leaves and paper-pink flowers suffused with sunlight faintly swaying across the pale blue sky. Drowsy, Melanie looked at the flowers and the sky…
Time died away, the solitary burden of human life was transformed in glory, and Melanie withdrawn in ecstasy, fell asleep.
And it is then that her nightmare begins. When Melanie wakes up, she is in for a rude shock. There is something not quite right about her surroundings, the room is dull and dark. She spots a woman called Adelaide and a maid called Lizzie loitering in there. And to her immense horror, Melanie gradually realizes that she has woken up in the year 1864 in the persona of Milly Baines.
For an instant, forever, Melanie was bound in timeless fear. Her eyes were forced open, rigid and unblinking, her mouth hung open, the rigid lips stretched in a terrible grin, all her being was rigid with unimaginable terror. For she knew that this was true.
That’s the basic premise of the plot and I will not reveal more. But as the book progresses, Melanie’s sense of terror and confusion increases as she struggles to find a way out of her predicament. She’s aware, though, that the one object common to the two time periods is the Victorian-chaise longue.
Some of the key themes explored in this novella are entrapment, isolation, confusion of identity, and the bending of time.
Melanie finds herself trapped by circumstances beyond her control and her attempts to explain and make herself understood are not taken seriously. Indeed, in many ways, when lying on it, the chaise-longue unflatteringly symbolizes a helpless woman at the mercy of those around her. For some reason, I was reminded of Betty Draper in Season One of Mad Men, lying on the psychotherapist’s couch, vulnerable while confessing to a man of dubious morals. No control at all over her circumstances.
Melanie is also increasingly isolated not just in the present, but also in the past. Her illness in the present confines her to a bedroom with no option of human interaction. And in the past, consumption has rendered her so weak that she’s nearly an invalid chained to the chaise-longue. There’s no prospect of human contact in that period either other than Adelaide, who is Milly’s sister and quite a cold woman.
But most importantly, Melanie experiences a loss of identity, her sense of self is blurred. Is she Melanie trapped in Milly’s body? Melanie knows the mind is hers, but who does the body belong to? Or is she really Milly Baines where her future (Melanie’s present) is only a vision? It’s possible that Milly is Melanie’s alter ego, after all there are some similarities in their circumstances and personalities – they are restricted by illness, bound and chained, the expression of their thoughts curtailed.
Has Melanie really lost all sense of time? Is it all a horrible dream, a nightmare and it’s only a matter of time before sanity is restored and she finally finds herself where she belongs? Or is she slowly descending into madness?
Somewhere along the way, a passionate affair is hinted at, there’s a sense that Milly was engaged in inappropriate behaviour but the details remain hazy. But it definitely makes Melanie ponder on the concept of sin and how it changes as time moves on.
We seem to be together now, she (Melanie) 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.
In a nutshell, cranking the fear factor up a notch and evoking a creeping sense of dread, The Victorian Chaise-longue, then, is an excellent novella where Laski has effectively employed the time travel angle to showcase a well-crafted tale of psychological horror. It’s one of those stories that throws up more questions than answers, which is always a good thing.
As an aside, this is the second time travel story I’ve read this year, the first being Daphne du Maurier’s excellent The House on the Strand.