Persephone Book No. 6: The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski

A forum for Persephone readers where we write about a new book every month.


This month’s book is short – a mere 99 pages – yet it succeeds in creating a very definite atmosphere and throws up all sorts of questions about what it all might mean…

'this hidden forgotten Regency Row' - a painting by David Gentleman of the house in Islington where the novel is set

‘this hidden forgotten Regency Row’ – a painting by David Gentleman of the house in Islington where the novel is set

Here’s a quick re-cap of the plot (but skip straight down to the discussion if this its all still fresh in your mind). Melanie Langdon is a pampered young woman married to an up-and-coming young barrister called Guy. They live in a comfortable reclaimed Regency house in London in the early 1950s. Melanie has recently given birth to a son but is recovering from a bout of tuberculosis, carefully tended by Guy and her doctor, Dr Gregory. As she recovers, Dr Gregory allows her to move from her bedroom to lie on a chaise-longue in the neighbouring room. The chaise-longue is a Victorian piece, vast and ugly save for the Berlin cross-stitch embroidery on its cover. Melanie acquired it in an antiques shop just before her tuberculosis was diagnosed.

Charles-Spencelayh-The-Old-Dealer

The Old Dealer by Charles Spencelayh

Falling asleep, Melanie awakes to find herself still lying on the chaise-longue but trapped in another time – 1864 – in the body of another tuberculosis sufferer, Milly Baines. Milly is tended by her sister, Adelaide, and a maid, Lizzie. Visitors drop by: the Clergyman, Mr Endworthy; the mysterious Gilbert Charters, also a member of the clergy; and Milly’s doctor, Philip Blundell.

It becomes apparent that there is secret hanging over Milly, that she has done something which is regarded by those around her as morally reprehensible. Meanwhile, Melanie tries to work out what has happened to her: maybe it’s a dream; or maybe she has been kidnapped; maybe Mr Entworthy’ prayers will help; maybe God or Fate are subjecting her to some sort of test; or maybe she just needs to convince Dr Blundell to take her somewhere where the air is better. As Melanie’s confusion grows, so does her fear. Is her mind inside Milly’s body or is Milly’s body also Melanie’s body? And if Milly dies, what will happen to Melanie?….

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Some thoughts and questions

Do you think the novel is indeed frightening? Or is it something else? Claustrophobic maybe? Or mysterious? Or intriguing?

Marghanita Laski was alone in a remote house in Somerset when she wrote the novel, having decided that she needed to scare herself in order to write it. Melanie’s fear perhaps lies in her sense of being trapped and wanting so much to escape, not understanding how she came to be where she is and the feeling that her identity and memory are merging with Milly’s so that she is no longer sure who she is. 

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Do the parallels between Melanie’s and Milly’s worlds make the story more compelling? More mysterious? More dreamlike?  More real?

There seem to be at least some resemblances between Melanie and Milly and the characters in their worlds. Melanie seems to have some of Milly’s memories and to find some of the Milly’s world familiar. Sometimes she has the sensation of her thoughts coming out in words that she would not have chosen but which appear to perhaps be how Milly might have articulated the same thoughts. Milly’s secret seems to be connected to Melanie’s own experiences and yet it is clear that their actions have been judged differently in different times. Meanwhile, the trust that Melanie places in Dr Gregory’s medical prognosis seems to be echoed in the faith she places Mr Endworthy being able to provide some sort of help. Lizzie seems to bear some resemblance to Melanie’s nanny and Melanie immediately looks for resemblances between Gilbert Charters and Guy.

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What role do antique – or junk – objects play in the novel? Do they simply set the scene, helping to give a Victorian-feel to the place were Melanie awakens? Do they change from been decorative to stifling, adding to the oppressive atmosphere of the room in which Melanie is trapped? What about the chaise longue itself?

Antique or junk objects are described at various points in the novel. Junk shops are Melanie and Guy’s ‘common hobby’. They spend Saturdays strolling around Chalk Farm Road and the Portobello, looking for ‘pretty sparkles’ to ‘embellish and cement their nest’. In the other world that Melanie enters, she notices all sorts of objects around her, brown photographs in plush frames, painted vases containing bullrushes, an urn plastered with postage stamps, ebony elephants, a brass bell… Melanie’s attempts to prove to Mr Endworthy that she is indeed from the future also involve her thinking about lists of objects: vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, airplanes…

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What do you think the message of the story is? Is there a message? Does it matter if the message remains somewhat elusive?

‘What precisely she was trying to tell us is unclear’, says P.D. James in the Preface, suggesting that the lines of T.S. Elliot quoted at the beginning of the novel may provide a clue. The lines are from the poem ‘Song for Simeon': ‘I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me’. Two-thirds of the way through the book, Melanie recalls a story about a monk who wandered into a garden to hear a lark sing and returned to find that a hundred years had gone by and then muses about experiences of ‘ecstasy’. But this just leaves us with a whole new web of interpretation to unravel!

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What other bloggers have said about the book:

The Victorian Chaise-Longue’s greatest strength is that it brings the weight of history to life. Things mean a lot

I have to admit I’m not sure that I fully understood what was supposed to be happening in this book. After thinking about it though, maybe that was the point: the reader isn’t supposed to understand because Melanie herself doesn’t understand. She Reads Novels

It is a very clever exploration of the woman’s role in Victorian society, of her restrictions and reliance on the world of men, and how this role changed so rapidly from the turn of the century onwards. Book Snob

Though by today’s standards this doesn’t seem a horror story its still very much ‘little jewel’, and one I found really uneasy reading. The way Laski puts you in the brain of Melanie with the body of Milly is wonderfully written. Savidge Reads

You don’t need mass murderers and polterghiests to make a scary book; just a sparse plot that hints at what may have happened rather than lay it out in all its gory detail. The Book Whisperer

Little, odd, excellent Hannah Stoneham

The Victorian Chaise-Longue works on more than one level. It is a fine piece of storytelling and it is also a striking analysis of the changing position of women in society. And while many authors would make a lengthy novel out of this material, Marghanita Laski distils it perfectly into just 99 pages. The writing and the characterisation is as wonderful as my previous experiences with her writing had led me to expect. And, once again, Marghanita Laski has come up with a stunning final sentence. How does she do that?! Fleur Fisher

A strange, and remarkable book, it is not quite the horror tale it is often billed as, but rather a discomforting and disturbing tale of dislocation. A time travel, reincarnation story, it considers quite metaphysical concepts on time and identity, in much the same way that T.S. Eliot does in The Four Quartets. In fact the books begins with an epigraph from Eliot: ‘I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.’ The story reminded me very much of Eliot’s meditations on time and the circular nature of existence. The Genteel Arsenal

If you enjoyed this book, you may also enjoy:

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Little Boy Lost (Persephone Book No. 28)

The Village (Persephone Book No. 52)

To Bed with Grand Music (Persephone Book No. 86)

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