She was shuddering in a body long ago dead

Dear Marghanita,

marghanita laski1The Victorian Chaise Longue (1953) follows Melanie Langdon, a young married woman who is recovering from tuberculosis. When the novel opens, we are somewhere in the late 1940’s, and she is looking for reassurance from her doctor: “Will you give me your word of honour,” said Melanie, “that I am not going to die?

Our protagonist has given birth to a baby she has not yet been allowed to see, due to her poor health. She has not left her bed for months, ever since the birth of her child, but now her doctor has finally allowed her to move from the bedroom to the drawing-room. Melanie is treated like a brainless doll by her husband and her doctor, but she is no fool: she plays with their condescension, so as to be pampered by everyone. “‘How clever you are, darling,’ said Melanie adoringly. ‘You make me feel so silly compared with you.’
‘But I like you silly,’ said Guy, and so he does thought Dr. Gregory watching them. But Melanie isn’t the fool he thinks her, not by a long chalk, she’s simply the purely feminine creature who makes herself into anything her man wants her to be.”

In the drawing-room, Melanie is placed on an ugly, rose-embroidered Victorian chaise longue she had bought at an antique shop just before receiving her TB diagnosis. That day, she had been originally looking for a cradle, but, to the shop assistant dismay, ended up feeling strangely drawn to the hideous chaise-longue. She just had to have it.

Now, months have passed, and Melanie is about to fall asleep on her chaise for the first time, suffused with the bliss of recovery. “Through the open window the spring poured in. From her couch, bathed in the soft sweet air, Melanie could not see the canal that lay beside her home, but it flowed through her imagination, dark and still and beautiful. From the water on the far side, a rough bank rose steeply to a bombed, still desolate waste, and from one of the brambles that sprawled all over it, a branch curved high and free to lie across the blue sky. Suffused with sunlight faintly swaying across the pale blue sky. Drowsy, Melanie looked at the flowers and the sky, and the noises of the city – the soft continuous roar of traffic, the whine of the milkman’s electric cart that stopped and started in the street behind – died away with her slow beatific loss of immediacy.”

When she wakes up, in the space of a paragraph, Melanie finds herself in the body of Milly Baines, a dying woman suffering from what was then labelled as consumption. It’s 1864, the room looks different, airless and dark, with a pervading foul smell. Only the chaise-longue is still the same. Or is it? Is Melanie dreaming? Has she gone mad? Is she dying? Has she been reincarnated in a dead body? What will happen to her 1940’s body if she dies in the 1860’s? Is she remembering a past life? Or has she time-travelled to Victorian England? Is the chaise-longue haunted?

Whatever the answers to these questions, one thing becomes gradually certain for our protagonist: either in the 1940’s or in the 1860’s, she is trapped. The book opens with Melanie being patronised by her 1940’s doctor, and it reaches its climax when she tries to explain to her 1860’s doctor what he has to do to save her – in both instances, her attempts to reclaim some sort of voice are chiefly dismissed.

The chaise-longue may or may not turn to be Melanie’s deathbed, but it will certainly be the cradle of a new self-awareness – which, in turn, may or may not be her undoing. Labelled as silly, fallen, or mad, both Melanie and Milly are unable to be understood and believed by the people around them. Much like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), your Victorian Chaise-longue (1953) is a clever exploration of the role of women in society through a distillation of the foul smell in the airless room of enforced domesticity.

You have a talent for withdrawing answers and conveying, in return, a strong sense of the uncanny: when she wakes up in Victorian times, Melanie finds herself in an unknown room that looks somewhat familiar; she does not know the people around her, yet she seems to have memories of them; she is aware of herself as Melanie, but seems to have some access to Milly’s mind – as if it were an echo of her own mind.

Melanie finds herself trapped in the body of another, yet it feels strangely familiar. Is she being possessed? If so, by whom – by Milly, by the chaise-longue itself, by the many incarnations of women’s submission to men? Who possessed whom here?

You build momentum by trapping us inside Melanie’s trapped mind, as she races against her hopeless, helpless condition. At some point, Melanie seems to be talking to Milly in her thoughts: “We seem to be together now, she explained, you and I, both hopeless. I think we did the same things, she told her, we loved a man and we flirted and we took little drinks, but when I did those things there was nothing wrong, and for you it was a terrible punishable sin.”

Being forever possessed by (or trapped inside) one’s double may well be the stuff of nightmares. Is Milly inside Melanie’s body somewhere in the 1940’s? Are Melanie and Milly the same person? Are they both at once alive and dead? Worse still: if Melanie was never really herself in the 1940’s, how can she ever return to a self that never existed in the first place? How can she become her self again? Melanie is imprisoned in the body of a dying woman, but also within the narrow confines of a dying female role. If she doesn’t know what her trap really is, how can she free herself from Milly – and from Milly’s fate?

By erasing the boundaries between the real and the double, you also erase our sense of temporality, trapping us in a disturbing sense of endless repetition: “Wireless, she screamed in her mind, television, penicillin, gramophone-records and vacuuum-cleaners, but none of these words could be framed by her lips. I can think them, why can’t I say them? she begged; can I introduce nothing into this real past? – and if I cannot, then even these thoughts I am thinking, has Milly thought them before? But things can’t happen twice, she told herself wearily, closing her eyes, the momentary relaxation over, the racking torture established again, I must always have been Milly and Milly me. It is now that is present reality and the future is yet to come. But if I have to wait for the future, if it is only in time to come that I shall be Melanie again, then that time must come again too when Sister Smith leaves me to sleep on the chaise-longue, and I wake up in the past. I shall never escape – and the eternal prison she imagined for herself consumed her mind, and she fainted or dozed off into a nightmare of chase and pursuit and loss.”

You play with the idea of lack of agency as a form of loss of one’s grip on reality – and, as such, a form of prison. The chaise longue, as a piece of furniture and a framework, will survive both Milly and Melanie. In a way, they will remain trapped inside it, and it will pass from one woman to the next. It will be a deathbed and a cradle, something ancient and forever new.

Yours truly,

J.


Paul Delaroche - Louise Vernet on Her Deathbed [detail]
Paul Delaroche – Louise Vernet on Her Deathbed [detail]

 


“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 see not even the ugly green and scarlet and yellow patterns under too tightly pressed eyelids, and then there was a heavy weighted rattle and almost simultaneously another, and consciousness of light shot through the close lids and forced them open.” – Marghanita Laski, The Victorian Chaise-Longue

*

“Perhaps Milly Baines died here. Then – Milly Baines must surely be dead now, she said blankly, Milly and Adelaide and Lizzie, all dead and rotten long ago. 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. She shuddered, and knew she was shuddering in a body long ago dead.” – Marghanita Laski, The Victorian Chaise-Longue


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