Where new writing finds its voice

The Victorian Chaise-longue

Felicity Cloake

By Marghanita Laski
Persephone Books Ltd. 1999

This slender and elegantly bound 1950s tale, although set in Islington, proves no Holly Golightly-esque romp through the boutiques of Upper Street. Instead, as the enthusiastic foreword by PD James exults, ‘it is one of the most skilfullytold and terrifying short novels of its decade’. Melanie is a young woman living a typically smug N1 life in one of the newly fashionable Regency terraces on the banks of the canal with her barrister husband and bouncing new baby. If she lived today, she would no doubt wield a ferocious threewheeled pushchair, sport pretty flats from LK Bennett and generally be the living embodiment of a yummy mummy. Unfortunately for her (as it transpires) she doesn’t, and busy casting a cloud on this idyll is the dark patch on her lung, reminding us with a jolt that, even in this bright, fairly familiar world lurks the spectre of tuberculosis – an illness the modern reader may well associate more with the slums of Victorian London than the Islington of barely half a century ago.

This half-identification with, and half-alienation from, the setting provides an interesting perspective for the modern reader as Melanie is transported, by means of the memorably revolting day-bed of the title, nearly a century back in time, into a world she finds as dark and as foreign as we may well find her illness. The terror is of the insidious, creeping sort, and comes not so much from the supernatural element of the story as out of our growing consciousness of the dreadful unchangeability of human nature, and the fatal naivety of our pathetic, yet unending capacity for hope. Melanie becomes increasingly enveloped in this encroaching other reality until, almost imperceptibly, the narrative shifts from her voice to that of an omniscient unknown, subtly normalising her in her new circumstances. We, and Melanie, recoil in horror, yet our awareness of the impossibility of the situation will not stop our modern, rational selves from becoming subsumed in the Victorian gloom.

With light, deft strokes Laski skilfully paints a watercolour world full of hope, in which the future is bright and charming, and frivolous Melanie will soon be well enough to play with her baby in the sunny fresh air of Switzerland – only to obliterate it with the foul-smelling, dull and heavy world of her Victorian counterpart, dying on the hideous chaise-longue surrounded by disapproving, severe relatives.

More than a simple horror story – although Melanie’s disturbed meditations on the certainty of mortal decay certainly help on that score – the novel is also a celebration of how far women, as well as medicine, had come in under a century. Without giving too much of the plot away, it is clear that happy, flippant ‘and above all, safe’ Melanie is trapped in a wretched situation which would have been her almost certain lot had she been born a few generations before.

Beautifully, yet economically written, this is one book which will have you shifting uncomfortably on your faux Georgian armchair.