Time travel. Fear. Confusion. Could I be describing the premise of a contemporary novel flying off bookshelves faster than Amazon sales rankings can keep up with? Perhaps.
Or, these could be a few words to describe the sixth out of the 93 Persephone Books reprinted thus far, (an independent publisher in England that reprints neglected classics by mostly 20th century women). The Victorian Chaise-Longue, by Marghanita Laski, was first published in 1953 and at only 99 pages, this tiny book is creepier and more uncomfortable than many Gothic books published today. I sat transfixed in the short time it took to read it. Eerie. Creepy. Uncomfortable.
The young wife, Melanie, suffers from tuberculosis and is confined to her room, hoping that she will survive with her doctor's help and can return to a normal life with her family, most especially with the baby she has yet to hold. When her family decides that she should move from one room to another in the house, the Victorian chair that Melanie purchased the very day she was diagnosed with tuberculosis is situated in the room. While resting upon the ugly chair, Melanie wakes up in a world almost 100 years before. Also ill with tuberculosis in this earlier time, Melanie is now surrounded not by a caring husband, but by a sister who holds a secret with her, and the clean room that she fell asleep in has now become a dirty, smelly, and unkempt room. Nothing is the same, save for the Victorian Chaise-Longue and Melanie's mind.
Can you imagine?
Then a sound, a door opening (but it took a long time to translate the noise into comprehension), and a woman said, "Well, Milly? Are you ready to wake up now?"
A common voice, a cruel voice, assured and domineering. Not a voice to be conquered with superior strength but the nightmare voice that binds the limbs in dreadful paralysis while the danger creeps and creeps and at last will leap. I am asleep, said Melanie, ordering her wakened brain to admit this and be still, her closed eyes to not see even the ugly green and scarlet and yellow patterns under too tightly pressed eyelids, and then there was heavy weighted rattle and almost simultaneously another, and consciousness of light shot through the closed lids and forced them open. (p. 24)
Descriptive and engaging, Marghanita Laski's story is one that showcases this author as a brilliant strategist, one who crafts a powerfully Gothic punch with each unsettling moment, and in the shortest amount of time. Melanie's new body is much weaker, and the sordid decor and pungent smells of the Victorian time are no dream. It is real, it is happening to her, and she cannot gather her strength to get out of this tangled mess. She is trapped in a body not her own, imprisoned within the shell of a weak and sick woman, and she is without the family that she believes she has left behind. Without question, it is a classic of monumental significance, and one that has led me to become a new fan of Persephone Books.
Natalie, the Coffee and a Book Chick
FTC Disclosure: My husband got me two Persephone books for Christmas and I meant to read them right away. I didn't and now that I've finished this one, I'm kicking myself that I waited this long. I'm currently reading the second one he gave me, Marghanita Laski's Little Boy Lost.
About the Author (from the Persephone Books website)
Marghanita Laski was born in 1915 to a family of Jewish intellectuals in London; Harold Laski, the socialist thinker, was her uncle. After working in fashion, she read English at Oxford, married John Howard, a publisher, and worked in journalism. She began writing once her son and daughter were born: among her six novels were Little Boy Lost (1949), The Village (1952) and The Victorian Chaise-Longue (1953). A well-known critic, she wrote books on Jane Austen and George Eliot. Ecstasy (1962) explored intense experiences and Everyday Ecstasy (1974) their social effects. Her distinctive voice was often heard on the radio on The Brains Trust and The Critics; and she submitted a large number of illustrative quotations to the Oxford English Dictionary. Her home was in Hampstead, where she died in 1988.
This picture is from The Guardian website, which listed The Victorian Chaise-Longue as one of the 10 Best Neglected Literary Classics.