What a bizarre little book this was! I’ve had it on the teetering TBR pile for almost a year…I bought it in a charity shop in Richmond when visiting Ham House last Spring, but came across mixed reviews that put me off reading it straight away. However, sometimes books just jump out at me and this week The Victorian Chaise Longue managed to leap the highest and gained my immediate attention. I feel a bit ambivalent about it, a couple of days after finishing. It wasn’t spectacular, but then it wasn’t bad, either; I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it. After reading and adoring Little Boy Lost last year, I was expecting it to pack a bit more of a punch, if I’m honest.
The book is about Melanie, a recovering TB sufferer, who lives in a nice house in London with her handsome husband and baby son in the early 20th century. She is pampered, surrounded by prettiness and luxury and adoration and she is almost ready to resume normal life again after being in bed for quite some time. On the day the book opens, Melanie is allowed to leave her bed at last, and is carefully placed on a beast of a piece of furniture; a heavy, rose-embroidered Victorian chaise longue, to enjoy the sun streaming through the windows of her pretty living room and feel part of the goings on of the house. As she drifts off to sleep on the chaise longue, some sort of odd time shift appears to happen, and Melanie wakes up in a completely different body in the past, still lying on the chaise longue. Terrifyingly, Melanie is now considered to be Milly, a dying TB sufferer, who is too weak to even raise her head.
Melanie, as Milly, finds herself passive and helpless, in a body that can no longer function properly. She is cloistered in a hot, smelly room and closely monitored by her sister, Adelaide, who seems to hold some sort of grudge against Milly for something she has done wrong. At first Melanie is horribly confused and at a loss to understand anything; she doesn’t recognise her surroundings or the people around her, and she is convinced she must be dreaming. However, as time goes on, she realises that this is no dream, and most frightening of all, she starts to notice her thoughts and words begin to echo those of Milly and become less and less like hers. She recognises things, knows things, and feels instinctively emotional towards people, all of which, if she were Melanie in someone else’s body, she shouldn’t know or recognise or feel at all. This leaves Melanie, and the reader, wondering; where does Melanie end and Milly begin? Has Melanie been absorbed into Milly? Will Melanie ever be herself again? Or was she ever real in the first place?
It is a very clever exploration of the woman’s role in Victorian society, of her restrictions and reliance on the world of men, and how this role changed so rapidly from the turn of the century onwards. The chaise longue is a metaphor for the perceived notion of female as weak, passive, idle; needing a ‘lie down’ in the afternoons on her special sofa. Milly embodies the entrapment women in Victorian times experienced, and this is also physically manifested in the hot, airless room she is forced to lie in, too weak to even lift her own head, and at the mercy of those around her. What, for Melanie, is insufferable and stifling is normality for Milly, who has no free will and no ability to make choices for herself. When she manages to muster the strength to speak to the men who could have power to help her, they dismiss her as a silly girl who must submit herself to their superior knowledge. Melanie, on the other hand, cosseted and pampered in her modern day world, has been given all the freedoms entitled to women, and Milly’s situation terrifies her in its helplessness. However, what Melanie fails to see is how similar they are; they are both lying on the chaise longue, both of their lives revolving around men. While Milly cannot help but have her life controlled by men and the social standards men have created, Melanie has had the choice to be an independent woman, and yet she denies it, preferring to be treated as a delicate, decorative object rather than a person with a mind and will of her own. She is a coquette, a flirt, an ultra feminine wide eyed delicate thing, who seeks men’s attention and protection, and has no real role outside of it, rendering her, in a way, equally as powerless as Milly.
It’s a small book with a powerful message and a very interesting plot that has no simple conclusions or satisfactory, neat ending, but it did come across as a little bit too much of an attempt to make a point about female subordination to me. While something along the lines of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper tackles the same themes of male domination over women and female madness, it manages to somehow be different, more menacing, more immediate, than The Victorian Chaise Longue. Perhaps, because Gilman was writing from the point of view of being in a society that devalued women and marked those who dared to be different with the label of ‘insane’, there is more of an urgency and terror about her words, which is something Laski, from her modern perspective, doesn’t quite manage to create. Ultimately, while I was fascinated by this very different and clever story, I was left cold and uncaring towards the characters; Melanie’s lack of spine made me not care less whether she remained trapped in the past or not, which I suspect was not the reaction Laski was aiming for. However, she has done an excellent job of creating a claustrophic and cloying atmopshere throughout the book, which did make me physically feel the real sense of entrapment that Melanie and Milly were suffering. Despite my reservations, it is a good book and I do recommend it, but don’t expect the same brilliance and emotion that you’ll find in the superb Little Boy Lost.
Finally, the winner of The Diary of Miss Idilia is…Heather! Email me your address (my email’s on the About Me page) and I’ll get it sent out to you!