Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski

When I was a child I used to wonder what it would be like to wake up in someone else’s body. Sometimes I would pretend that I had. I would go through a day pretending that everything I encountered was unfamiliar, and that I had to fool everyone around me who thought I was someone else. I think a lot of children play this game. Marghanita Laski uses this childhood conceit to tell the story of Melanie, a woman who goes to sleep on a chaise longue and wakes up in another woman’s body in another time and place, yet still fully aware of her own original identity. Unlike the childhood game, however, it all ends badly in this story; Milly (the woman Melanie becomes) is gravely ill and has just undergone a harrowing experience (hinted at but never explained; readers will figure it out). Bad luck for Melanie.

What struck me about this story was the utter childishness of Melanie before she becomes Milly. A silly, spoiled, upper class beauty, she is totally dependent upon her husband and her servants, clinging, whining, begging for reassurance from the “adults” who surround her. I found her really irritating (and this is what I was referring to in my last post, when I said I wasn’t enjoying the book). It is only when she turns into Milly that she finally emerges as an adult character, though ironically, her first assertive act is also her last.

I’m not sure whether Laski was trying to make some kind of feminist point here or not. Was she lashing out at a generation of spoiled upper class women? (Melanie’s character type will certainly be familiar to readers of mid-century British fiction.) Take a childhood game, and force a childlike adult to really play it in order to make her finally grow up. Is Melanie (as Milly) being punished for being childlike, or for finally overcoming her dependence?

Or is Laski using Melanie to make the point that this dependent personality type was forced on women of her generation and social class, and that Melanie escapes in the only way possible, even if it proves to be disastrous? Maybe I am just over analyzing. I certainly can’t conclude one thing over the other.

This was a Persephone book, and while I didn’t love it, it certainly made me think. It’s very short and could be read in an evening. P.D. James provides a surprisingly lackluster introductory essay.

(Book 50, 2007)


Anonymous said...

Sounds like an interesting book, at least; I'm divided on whether I'd want to read it.

Hannah Stoneham said...

Thanks for sharing a great review - I agree about the introduction, I was strangely disappointed in it! I have linked to your review in my own review of this book.
Happy reading

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