The Victorian Chaise Longue by Marghanita Laski

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!

37 comments

  1. I’ve read several reviews of this now and, though I rarely read anything that could be construed as horror, I am intrigued. However, I still think I’ll probably try Little Boy Lost first, having heard from others (and now you) that it’s Laski’s best.

    1. Well I do think ‘horror’ is a bit strong for this and I was disappointed as I was expecting to be a bit more horrified, I must say! Little Boy Lost is a very different book and I think it shows Laski’s true strengths as a writer. I think if I’d read TVCL before it, I wouldn’t have been as keen to read her work again, but knowing how amazing she can be, I am still excited to read her other books.

  2. I wasn’t crazy about this one either. I don’t even think I finished it; if I remember correctly, I got confused and cranky and gave it up. Little Boy Lost was far better for me too.

    1. Yes Little Boy Lost is a different kettle of fish entirely and I am so glad I read that first otherwise I’d have been put off Laski a bit, which would have been a real shame as her other books are, I’m sure, much superior to this.

  3. This story sounds so fascinating! I wish it was successful😦 I really enjoyed The Yellow Wallpaper, and I think this would be a great complementary read- if you had enjoyed it, that is. I will probably skip it as I think I’ve read enough on the insane women front recently. Pssst- If you want to read about an insane woman written AMAZINGLY well… Wish Her Safe at Home!!

    1. It is a fascinating story and could have been developed into something much more interesting and horrifying if it was longer and less obviously a neatly packaged treatise on the subordination of women. I just read about Wish Her Safe at Home – sounds amazing, thanks so much for the recommendation! The description of that book is sort of what I thought The Victorian Chaise Longue would be, and it’s just not.

  4. I wasn’t particularly overwhelmed by this one, either.

    I have yet to read To Bed with Grand Music, but having read this and Little Boy Lost (which I quite liked), I think Laski’s ability to create characters we feel ambivalent towards means that we don’t necessarily feel the same sense of panic and fear for them as we would in something like The Yellow Wallpaper.

    1. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one! I’ve only read this and Little Boy Lost too – I have The Village on my TBR pile. Laski is very good at creating characters you feel quite conflicted towards, you’re right. That was my main problem in this book – I didn’t massively care what happened to either of the women!

  5. I was lucky enough to read this before Little Boy Lost so I did not have the same expectations after being completely blown away by the latter. Eighteen months later it holds more resonance than it did at the time; reading it then, it was a bit of an anti-climax (and only my third Persephone on the back of the amazing Someone at a Distance). On the strength of LLB, I have high hopes for Laski’s other Persephone titles, both of which I have on my to-be-read pile. Where I think she is successful (at least with LLB) is that she creates drama and emotional impact out of unsympathetic characters; I’ve heard she does the same with To Bed With Grand Music, and that it does pack a punch.

    I recommend anyone who has read this -whether they were disappointed or delighted- to read The Yellow Wallpaper; I recommend it anyway because it is the superior text and thank you for including mention of it your review.

    I’m sorry that this one disappointed you. It has grown on me more with time and I think I shall reread it one Hallowe’en, not that I find it particularly frightening except in a social-historical sense.

    1. Yes I think I have been spoiled by LBL and I think I may have felt differently if I’d read this first. As it stands I was expecting the same greatness and didn’t find it, and therein lay my feelings of being underwhelmed. She is fantastic at drawing you in to the plight of people who aren’t perfect and I especially liked that about LBL – despite Hilary’s failings I still loved him. I am looking forward to reading more of her work and maybe one day I’ll come back to this with fresh eyes and see how it works second time round.

      The Yellow Wallpaper is indeed superb – I was very disturbed by it the first time I read it.

  6. What an excellent review Rachel. I actually preferred this to Little Boy Lost; I’m not sure why, but it intrigued me. I agree with you and Claire that The yellow wallpaper does the same thing rather better (although is frustratingly short)

    1. Thank you Verity! How interesting that you had the opposite experience. I wish I had liked this more and it seemed so perfect for me! The Yellow Wallpaper would have been a wonderful novel I think, if it could have been stretched out…so genuinely disturbing.

  7. While I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Laski’s other works I’ve hesitated to order this one due to the lukewarm reviews. I am certainly intrigued though and since her work is finite will one day feel the need to reach for it simply because it’s there. Thanks for your much valued opinion, Rachel!

    1. Lukewarm indeed – it certainly didn’t compare to the experience I’ve had with her other work and I wish I’d picked up The Village instead first.

      I’m glad you value my opinion Darlene! Thank you!

  8. I think its interesting how many people are comparing it to LBL when they are polar opposites one is a novella the other a novel and both on completely different subject matters so of course they wont be a like, sometimes we cant help but compare the works of the same author though can we.

    Its interesting as though I really liked LBL I thinkhaving digested them both now I might have prefered this. I think its the victorian element maybe. I think as two seperate books they both have as much to say as each other on different subjects and just as much of a deep sense of the atmosphere of their seperate times so from that alone I will be reading much more Laski.

    Wonderful review and thoughts Rachel, I too thought the contrasts between the womens circumstances in the different ages was interesting and their roles. I just thought the way Laski described being trapped in a foreign body was brilliantly creepy.

    1. Yes they are polar opposites and I see exactly what you mean. I think my expectations had been raised a little too high by LBL and I shouldn’t have gone in with so many preconceptions about what I expected to find within its pages. As I said above I think I might have enjoyed this more if I had have read it before LBL.

      I think it’s really interesting that you, like Verity, preffered this to LBL. I found TVCL lacked the emotional quality I enjoyed in LBL and as creepy and claustrophic as it was, for me, the lack of identifiable characters left me feeling cold.

      I’m glad you liked the review despite our opposing views, Simon!

  9. I was interested to know how this compared to ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ because its themes sound so similar. I wonder which would be more terrifying, though I can see which you felt was more menacing in book form.

    1. I think The Yellow Wallpaper is the far more superior novella – The Victorian Chaise Longue tries to be about madness but never quite manages to come through – it’s almost as if Marghanita Laski was trying too hard to say something about madness and femininity and helplessness and subordination and somewhere it all got a bit muddled and she didn’t end up saying anything with any particular force. But that’s just my opinion. The Yellow Wallpaper really packed a punch for me and I was truly disturbed, whereas this book didn’t really bother me at all.

  10. Hi Rachel, as always I love your in depth comprenhensive reviews. This novel sounds really interesting for it’s message about the place of women in society. If there is one thing I’ve taken from all the early British 2Oth C fiction that I ‘discovered’ via the wonderful book blogging world, it is that while the content may be quite domestic and the plots seemingly ‘tame’, these novels often have fascinating common themes about women’s place in society, about class and the impact of the World Wars and can be quite trenchant, almost devastating reads. I thought I was onto a treasure trove of bucolic English cosy reads, but not so! I am so glad for the amazing depths and insights such novels
    have brought me, as I read to understand ‘life’ as much as to be entertained. So, thank you for your review – I think I will definitely try to read TVCL for it’s themes and for the way it complements all the other early 20thC reading I’ve done in the last year.

    1. Hello Merenia! I still HAVE to reply to your lovely email you send me ages ago..will get around to it, I promose!

      Thank you so much for your comment. Yes its message is an interesting one and its social history insights are very powerful. I just wish it had gone a step further and actually become the menacing story it had promised to be. Well worth a read but I’ve read better books that deal with the same themes.

  11. Rachel – I felt exactly like you did about this book. I read it about 2 years ago and it did leave me cold. While an interesting story, I didn’t feel any empathy for the character. It was precisely because of this that I didn’t pick up any other Laski books until an e-friend sent me Little Boy Lost earlier this year and as you know I loved that book. I now realise what an excellent writer she really is and am eager to read more of her work.

    1. I’m glad you felt the same Astrid. It just didn’t have any of the character development or personal involvement I so enjoyed in LBL and while I can’t judge both books by the same standards, I was disappointed that TVCL wasn’t more frightening than it was.

  12. I liked this book a lot, though it remains the only Laski I’ve read (I will read LBL before too long! Maybe in this year’s Persephone Reading Week) – I appreciated being able to read it on two historical levels; the Victorian, and the ‘modern’ period which also seems so dated now.

    But I don’t think the term ‘horror’ is suitable – claustrophic, as you say, but not really horror.

    1. Yes – the ‘modern’ period was incredibly dated and I actually found that bit even more infuriating than the Victorian section! Melanie was so infantilised and she seemed to enjoy it – I wanted to jump in and smack her!

      Claustrophic is exactly the term – I would never have termed it horror and I’m surprised that the term has been ascribed to it. Though perhaps we have just become desensitised; at the time of publication it may indeed have been horrifying to contemporary readers!

  13. I really liked this when I read it, but liked more than loved. I think where she excelled was creating that claustrophic atmosphere. I’ve also read a short story by her that was similar–in the vein of a ghost story, but not really a ghost story, and in so few pages she conveys this frightening feeling of being out of control and lost (story is called “The Tower”). This is one I would like to reread. Even though it’s a slim novel, there is more to it than meets the eye!

    1. The claustrophobic atmosphere was superb and really well done, and I think that’s what I enjoyed the most. That story sounds fascinating – I’m going to look it up, thank you!

  14. This was the first Laski I read, and it didn’t do much for me either. I just couldn’t engage with it as much as I would like. I wonder if that’s partly a generational thing. I found it hard to relate to Melanie – her present is to much like the past for me, Milly I could and did feel more for. I will try re reading this one day to see how I feel about it second time round and with different expectations.

    1. No, it is a difficult book to engage with and that’s why I think I felt so ambivalent by the end. I also related more to Milly – Melanie I just found infuriating. I will definitely come back to this one day – maybe once I’ve read some more of her other books.

  15. Hi Rachel – another enjoyable review of a book that you have read before me… i have linked to you in my review of this. I really enjoyed it and Little Boy Lost is next on my list…

  16. I loved TVCL – rich in the feel and smell of the nineteenth century and the sinister lure of the past. I saw it as a sort of Christmas Carol. Melanie redeems herself by trying to help Milly, and at the least will take her freedoms less lightly if she lives. A brilliant two-hour treat at the laundrette.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it Jimbob – your comments about the Christmas Carol/moral aspect are very interesting! I hadn’t thought about it that way before, thank you!

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