Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Victorian Chaise-Longue

The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski (1953)

I recently read about this short book on the bookarahma blog, and immediately requested it through interlibrary loan. I had just finished How To Be a Victorian and was really in the mood for some Victorian lit, and this little time travel novella fit the bill.

It's the early 1950s and Melanie, who has recently had a baby, is recovering from tuberculosis. She's been on bed rest for several months and hasn't even been allowed to hold her baby yet. But she's doing better, and is allowed to move into another room and lie on the ugly Victorian chaise longue she bought just before getting ill. Then she falls asleep, and when she wakes up she's on the same chaise longue, but in 1864 and everyone is calling her Milly.

This is where it gets kind of creepy. She can look down and see that she is in someone else's body, and she has limited access to Milly's thoughts - certain people look familiar to her and she has some vague memories. Although she is from a very different time, when she speaks the right phrases for the Victorian era come to her lips. Conversely, she cannot seem to say anything that is too inappropriate to that time. In desperation she wants to prove that she is from the future by telling the people around her about future events, but she physically can't say the words. But worst of all, Milly also has tuberculosis but she's not recovering as Melanie was in more modern times.

Everyone is so condescending to Melanie, acting very stern every time she gets the least bit excited or upset about anything. Of course it's even worse when she is Milly because she's farther back in time when women were looked down upon even more. This all reminded me a bit of The Yellow Wallpaper, in that Melanie/Milly was cooped up and infantilized and heading down a pretty dark spiral.

Melanie tried to figure out what caused her to travel back in time, and thus, what could possibly get her home. But she was helpless in her illness, unable to even get up. All during her ordeal, she kept thinking that in her present, everyone was dead, including Milly.

"This body I am in, it must have rotted filthily, this pillowcase must be a tatter of rag, the coverlet corrupt with moth, crisp and sticky with matted moths' eggs, falling away into dirty crumbling scraps. It's all dead and rotten, the barley-water tainted, the nightgown threadbare and thrown away, these hands, all this body stinking, rotten, dead."

If that's not a vision of horror, I don't know what is.

There's more to it too, a secret that Milly has kept from her sister, and another that they both share, but Melanie doesn't discover them until very late in the story. She has no real allies at all, and must endure this bewildering ordeal alone.

A pretty satisfying little story, if you like that sort of thing, which obviously I do. And it qualifies for the very conveniently-located time travel space in my Winter Bingo. I didn't even plan that!

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