'The Victorian Chaise-Longue' by Marghanita Laski was not what I expected. But then again it has been on the wishlist so long I forget what I had read about it. At a mere 99 pages it is definitely a book to read in one sitting, and I think benefitted from being part of last weekend's intensive read-a-thon.
This is the most curious and peculiar of stories. Written in the early 1950s it tells of a young woman called Melanie who has TB and has been confined to bed by her doctor. She is sweet and naive and vulnerable, but with an adoring husband and a caring doctor, and, upstairs, a baby whom she is forbidden to see (I am not sure if this is for fear of infecting him or because the excitement would worsen her condition). The scene is set for us; they live in a gentrified little cottage with all the privileges a solicitor's income can bring. Melanie's every whim is pandered to, she is cosseted and cared for, and one morning she is carried down to the sitting room (the delightful bedroom having become an awful prison to her) and placed to rest on an old victorian chaise-longue:
"And as she lay there, so nearly, so very nearly asleep, she was unthinkingly aware of the sky and the flowers and the music, of the sun-warmed air on her body that was at last sure of happiness to come. Time died away, the solitary burden of human life was transformed in glory, and Melanie, withdrawn in ecstasy, fell asleep." (p.22)
She awakens to a confusing darkened room and the rustling skirts of a woman she does not know, but who seems to know her. The only thing the same is the chaise-longue on which she lies. Her first confused thoughts of it being a strange dream and a determination to return to oblivion and awake in her own home are soon replaced by the growing sensation of panic as she realised she is not only somewhere else but some body else. Her utter vulnerability is what makes the scenario so disturbing. Her physical weakness means her reactions are inside her head, she cannot jump up and run away, she is totally dependent on the care and concern of this woman. And yet it is as if some other consciousness is inhabiting her mind, the room is strange ... but at the same time she recognises everything, this is what frightens her more:
"Sleep, sleep, she pleaded, but the thread of awareness held taut, and she could not but hear the footsteps that moved near her again, slow, heavy, enveloped in the heavy swishing of the long skirts, that could not be the brisk steps of Sister Smith set to the faint susurration of her starched gingham. A glass was set down on the tattered cover of the small round table by her head - 'How do I know it's a tattered cover, a small round table?' cried Melanie to herself, and she must open her eyes, and by her head was the glass tumbler on the tattered cover on the small round table, and beside it still stood the woman." (p.27)
As the events unfold Melanie gradually understands the new reality she finds herself in but each new discovery brings waves of fear and panic; the horror that the body she is in is really dead and decaying, the terror at being trapped in this place and never getting back where she came from, or dying from the TB that her alter-ego Milly also suffers from.
"She could raise her head - but not for long. Before she could tell the unseen legs that they must move too, move away from their foul disastrous nest, she fell back on the pillow, her head thudding emptily as though it had been hit very hard, her heart beating with great pulsations not only in her breast but all over her body, with huge destructive thuds.
Then she thought, But when I was not on the chaise-longue, I was there. If I get off it, perhaps I shall be here, irrevocably here. If I lie still and wait, surely soon I shall go back. I can't stay here, she cried to herself, I can't be lost here, and die here." (p.41)
A late arrival to tea however thickens the plot and she learns that the devoted sisterly relationship between Milly and Adelaide is not all it first appears.
I like the character of Melanie because although she is physically weak it's as if she has this thread of determination not to let it beat her. At the beginning she coquettishly demands that the doctor give her reassurance that she will not die, but she is putting on a bit of an act, playing up her weakness to ensure the devotion she wants:
" 'How clever you are darling,' said Melanie adoringly. 'You make me feel so silly compared with you.'
'But I like you silly,' said Guy, and so he does, thought Dr Gregory, watching them. But Melanie isn't the fool he thinks her, not by long chalk, she's simply the purely feminine creature who makes herself into anything her man wants her to be." (p.5)
But by the end it has become a grim clinging on to life in the face of sure evidence that Milly is dying:
"Suddenly she thought, then it is to save her, to save her life, that is why I have been sent back here, because I know how to save Milly, fresh air and sunlight and milk and rest - but then, with equal suddenness, the question, Save whom? Save Milly, or save me? I in this body, I in Milly's dying body, must I die in Milly's body because it is too soon to be saved? But I know how to be saved, she said, surely this is the test and the ordeal, to save Milly and myself, to save and be saved." (p.81)
I just have to add this last little one. I beautifully observed detail, giving away the character, here is a man not to be trusted:
"He was feeling her pulse now and looking at a big silver turnip watch he held in his hand, not a gold watch like Mr Endworthy's, but the silver watch of the not too successful doctor." (p.83)
The whole book is intensely claustrophobic, mostly taking place inside Melanie's thoughts and in the single room. The atmosphere of the room exacerbates this, you can just imagine the heavy victorian furniture and the suffocating air in the closeted room (considered the best treatment for the condition at the time). The whole thing rises to a terrifying climax as events in the past are revealed. A thoroughly chilling book, the ending leaving the poor reader suspended in the moment.