Published in 1954, Marghanita Laski’s ‘The Victorian Chaise Long’ is a wonderfully simple yet profoundly disturbing novella which, in some ways, was ahead of its time.
Melanie, a young wife and mother, is recovering from tuberculosis in the house which she and her husband have bought despite the protestations of their parents that the area was, perhaps, beneath them:
‘How much she and Guy had enjoyed the informed superiority with which they had worsted the protesting parents, able to point out that already an artist and an architect had bought and reclaimed homes in this hidden forgotten Regency row (‘Artists and architects aren’t barristers,’ his father had said. ‘That sort of gentry don’t look at things like we do’), and later two more homes had been reclaimed and converted, one by a young professor and the other by senior Civil Servant…leaving only one house still held firmly in working-class hands, the object of complicated plots hatched by the other owners in summer evenings when they brought their glasses of sherry out into the little front gardens…’
Having spent Saturday mornings ‘dressed, so they believed, like people who haggled not from pleasure but because they must’, the house is embellished with ‘pretty sparkles’ and an old chaise longue, decorated with roses and a deep dark stain, upon which Melanie can recuperate…
Laski uses this phenomenon of ‘slumming’ as the backdrop to the novel, a phenomenon which has existed in Britain since the 19th century and continues to this day (Accusations of such were certainly levelled at Nell Dunn after the publication of ‘Up the Junction’), but what makes it surprising delight is Laski’s attitude towards the phenomenon, an attitude from which the narrative springs.
On awakening, Melanie finds her surroundings have changed: everything is darker, dirtier, smellier and a cruel voiced woman greets her with a brusque ‘Wake up properly now, and no more of your nonsense.’ and, even more perplexing, she persists in calling Melanie ‘Millie’: What has happened to her body, now reduced to a tired husk of a thing? What are the half memories which come into her mind, figments of another’s emotions, almost taking over her consciousness? Why is Melanie filled with such ‘powerful longing and pain’ when she lays eyes upon Mr. Charters, a person she has no knowledge of? Will the kindly, intelligent clergyman Mr Endworthy understand her predicament and expedite her escape? Will she ever see her beloved husband and a darling baby again?
‘The Victorian Chaise Longue’ is a quiet piece of nightmare fiction, depicting one of the ultimate terrors, all the while presenting us with a stark history lesson: the stifled life of an intelligent working class woman. In this, Laski’s novel reminded me somewhat me of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novella about a woman’s mental breakdown. Both use a simple, uncomplicated style which serves to sharpen the tension like sandpaper. Like Perkins Gilman’s lead character, we see, in Melanie/Millie a woman’s intelligence repressed and, when she fights back, labelled as ‘mad’. While Melanie can think and plot and plan, Millie cannot verbalise the words beyond her means; while Melanie is free to love and bear children, Millie must suffer in silence at her lost love and lost child and while Melanie can twitter and flap about the TB which the doctor has under control, for Millie the disease presents a far deadlier proposition. In one particularly chilling sequence, Laski has Melanie find the courage to look at the tired body – Millie’s tired body – which she now inhabits:
‘There, framed by the crumpled clothes, set on ribs barely covered with skin, rose two small breasts. My breasts? cried Melanie, or not my breasts? Dare I touch them, these breasts, that may be mine and alive, or will they crumple, will they rot if I touch them with my living hands, my hands on long-dead breasts? These are whiter than mine, she said, smaller, sadder than mine and in a convulsive movement she laid her hands beneath them and they did not rot, small hot living breasts, and pulsing through them, the too-fast-beating heart.’
But, as I intimated earlier, ‘The Victorian Chaise Longue’ is even more than a story about the horrors inflicted on women: without a trace of polemic, it also presents a stark warning to those who would trample on other’s lives for their own gain, caring not a jot for those whom they price out of their city or force from their roots; to those who pilfer and profit from the lives of others because, well, it’s all such a laugh; to the unthinking, willingly ignorant fools like the ‘Make Do and Mend’ brigade of mustachioed and befrocked buffoons whose search for ‘authenticity’ (a fragile concept at the best of times) sees them harken back to times gone by, ignoring the darkness hidden by the spirit of the blitz, the medical horrors of pre-NHS Britain and the rotten ignorance which saw all those who weren’t white, heterosexual and male suffer, one way or another. To them I join Laski in saying: ‘Don’t romanticise the past – it may well come back to bite you!’
Unheralded and unsung for too long, ‘The Victorian Chaise Longue’ is a latecomer to my collection of great supernatural tales and ranks alongside the best.