Aug 24, 2009

The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski

The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski

Happy Persephone Week, everyone! In case you’re going “huh?”, Persephone Week is being hosted by Claire at Paperback Reader and Verity at The B Files, and the goal is to read and celebrate Persephone Books, a publisher of neglected and forgotten twentieth-century classics, most by women. This morning, I read my very first Persephone. And no, I didn’t pick it because it happens to the shortest book on the Persephone catalogue, but rather because Claire recommended it to me, and because I can’t resist the words “Victorian” and “time-travel”. Of course, the fact that I finished it in a little over an hour was a plus.

Originally published in 1953, The Victorian Chaise-Longue is the story of Melanie Langdon. Early in her pregnancy Melanie was diagnosed with tuberculosis, but thanks to the care of her doctor both she and her child are doing okay. But she hasn’t been allowed to leave her bedroom in months, nor to touch the baby since its birth. The book opens with good news for Melanie – as she’s beginning to recover, she is to finally leave her bedroom and be moved to the living room.

There, she falls asleep on a Victorian chaise-longue she found at a vintage furniture store. When she wakes up, she realizes she has been transported from the 1950’s to the 1860’s, into the body of someone by the name of Milly Baines. Sounds just like a nightmare, right? But try as she might, Melanie can’t wake up.

The Victorian Chaise-Longue End Paper

The Victorian Chaise-Longue is a chilling, atmospheric and suffocating novella. Melanie’s helplessness and entrapment felt all too real, and it was easy to transport the emotions she was experiencing to things other than being stuck in the past. I want to share a passage that, to me, is at the core of what this story is about. Addressing Milly in her thoughts, Melanie says:
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.
As we read on, we (along with Melanie herself) find out more about Milly’s life: why her sister treats her with such contempt, why the Vicar keeps asking her if she doesn’t want to confess, why everyone acts as if the illness that is killing her is a just punishment. The things Milly is supposedly guilty of are all things Melanie has done herself. The two women are in fact very similar, but in Milly's time, her circunstances were enough to turn her into someone who was hopeless and pitiable in the eyes of some, and wicked and despicable in the eyes of others.

The Victorian Chaise-Longue's greatest strength is that it brings the weight of history to life. The device that it uses to place someone with twentieth-century sensibilities in the past is effective (though I have no doubt that a similar novella could be written today with a woman going back to the 1950's, and optimistically I believe that the same will be true in fifty year's time). As a result, readers get to truly feel the oppressiveness of Victorian sexual mores.

This is a fantastic and very unsettling book, and my first experience with Persephone was most definitely a successful one. I thought I’d leave you with the covers to a few other editions of the book – unsurprisingly, they’re a lot more dramatic than the sober Persephone cover, but what I thought was interesting is how they seem to change the reader’s expectations of the book:

The Victorian Chaise-Longue The Victorian Chaise-Longue The Victorian Chaise-Longue

I actually like them, though, especially the middle one. What do you think?

Favourite bits:
She said, 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.

I have got to prove myself to Mr. Endworthy, prove that I really come from the future. I should know what is just going to happen – but what is? If I was one of those educated women, she thought angrily, an old resentment, long buried in marriage, rearing its head again. I know what the Victorian age was like, of course I do, except that being here, it isn’t like that at all.
Other Opinions:
A Book A Week
Farm Lane Books
Green Road Books

(Did I miss yours?)


  1. What a strange book! I've never heard of this before.

  2. This sounds so good! I'll have to get my hands on a copy. Thanks for sharing :)

  3. Beautiful review! This sounds like an interesting novel.

  4. I'm so glad to hear you liked it! I have it on order and hope it will arrive in time for the challenge. Which Persephone are you reading next?

  5. I am thrilled that you loved this and that I was right to recommend it. It's such a great book. You really need to read The Yellow Wallpaper now as nothing does suffocating like that novella.
    The other covers are interesting; I'd seen the middle one before and it reminds me of The Duchess of Malfi, for some reason.
    A great start to Persephone Reading Week!

  6. This sounds really great! I read my first Persephone last week (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day), though I suppose I should have held of until this week. That book made me want to read more Persephones, and I'm going to add this to my list... I think I'll be doing a lot of that this week!

  7. And I haven't even made it past the first chapter of Miss Buncle's Book:) I wasn't sure if I wanted to read this Persephone but your review has definitely got me interested. I am glad your first Persephone was so good.

  8. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is one of my favorite books. I read it in one sitting a few days after seeing the movie and have been recommending it to everyone.

  9. You read the most interesting stuff! It's always a learning experience to see what you're doing!

  10. I saw some comments on Jackie's blog about your review. I am all over this! Victorian time travel? A perfect escape in my book. And the more unsettling, the better. I am really sorry I can't join you all! I'm in way over my head at this point...

  11. Persephone sounds like a wonderful publisher and The Victorian Chaise-Longue sounds wonderful too!

  12. Wow! The more things change...sounds like an interesting publisher, with an interesting selection of books. Will check this out (and I agree with Paperback Reader: if you haven't done so already, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper is must read). Thanks for this!

  13. This sounds chilling. Definitely another for my Tiny TBR List.

    And I second everyone else's recommendations for "The Yellow Wallpaper." It, too, is a chilling novella that asks the reader to consider women's issues in a different light.

  14. Sounds fabulous. I would love this. I have never heard of Persephone books, they sound similar to Virago. I just love the idea of the story.

    On another note, I have just finished 84 Charing Cross Road and fallen in love with Helene Hanff's writing. The book had The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street in it too an it was just fabulous and definitely one I need to buy. I am now searching for the Helene Hanff ominbus which is out of print. Thank you so much for introducing her books to me.

  15. Amanda: Only goes to show how unfairly unforgotten and neglected it was :P

    Lu, I hope you enjoy it!

    Laughing Stars, thanks!

    leaningtowardthesun: Saplings by Noel Streatfeild. I've started it already and I'm loving it!

    Claire: Yes, I must read The Yellow Wallpaper before long!

    Steph, I've heard nothing but good things about Miss Pettigrew. It's definitely on my list! And yes, I have a feeling this week will prove dangerous.

    Book Psmith: I look forward to your thoughts on Miss Buncle's Book!

    amcatoir: As I was telling Steph, it's on the list!

    rhapsodyinbooks: I have fellow bloggers to thank for all the great recommendations!

    Sandy: Maybe if we ask nicely Claire and Verity will host it again some other time?

    bermudaonion: I'm glad to be discovering Persephone at least - I have the feeling this is the beginning of a new obsession :P

    ds and Memory: I haven't read it yet, but I promise to do so soon!

    Vivienne: Yes, I do think they have a similar approach to publishing as Virago. I'm so glad you loved Helene Hanff's books as much as I did! I actually didn't know there was an omnibus. Must keep an eye out.

  16. This looks so interesting, Nymeth! I'd never heard of Persephone Books till now. I like the sound of "forgotten classics" - it makes me wonder what gems one might find.

  17. LOL! I picked this up as it was the shortest one I could find!

    I'm very pleased I did though as I really enjoyed reading it. It was my first Persephone book too and I will be reading more of them.

    Unlike you I didn't find it chilling. I actually found it quite funny! I must be a bit strange!

  18. Belle: I'm glad I'm helping spread the word about Persephone! I'm a brand new convert, but I think they deserve more love.

    Jackie: lol, you aren't! Just last week I was saying in my review of Who Killed Amanda Palmer that I found her pictures pretending to be dead hilarious, and people were giving me metaphorical weird looks :P I'm glad you enjoyed it!

  19. This one sounds right up my reading alley! I could use a short read in the near future. I'm currently working my way through The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. It is fantastic, but it is also 607 pages! Thanks for reviewing this -- I've never heard of it.

  20. I have always wanted to read a Persephone book, but haven't yet purchased one. There are quite a few out there, and this is the first one that I have seen a review for. Hmm, maybe I will go check your link and follow the posts for this week. I think this book sounds very interesting, and am putting it on my wish list. I have also heard that the end papers in these books are beautiful. I assume that's what I see here in your post. Great review, I'm glad you enjoyed the book!

  21. I have read Marghanita Laski's other two Persephones and I have been saving this one beause I wanted to feel that I still had something of hers left to read. But I may not be able to resist much longer. A wonderful review!

  22. "chilling, atmospheric and suffocating novella"

    That sounds right up my alley.

    I like the first cover in your row of 3. Reminds me of a psychedelic version of the Robert McGinnis covers I love.

  23. Don't laugh, but I've never heard of Persephone so I've learnt something from you today! :P

    This sounds like an interesting read! I'll check it out. As for the cover, I like the first and second one. The one you posted right at the top is good too: simple and sweet.

  24. I've only just heard about Persephone books, so it's exciting to see all of the buzz this week. Time travel and Victorian periods do sound really interesting--are you a fan of Dickens? (Not that he has anything to do with time travel, just seems like the quintessential Victorian guy). The first two covers look almost nightmarish to me--like the cover of my Poe collection.

  25. I like the cover to the right, but the Persephone one is the most appealing to me as it has the most lovely endpaper! I want to get it for those, except I'm afraid this is too scary a book for me. Is it that scary? On a scale of 1 to 10, how does it rate?

    I'm enjoying Miss Pettigrew at the moment, also my first Persephone! And so loving it. Which are you reading next?? :D

  26. This sounds like a fun side project and a short but sweet book. It sounds like something I would enjoy and it's good to find a decent short read.

  27. Terri B: Yeah, amazing though it is, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is not exactly a quick read. Sounds like you'll need a few short books to recover :P

    Zibilee: Yes, click the links! Claire at Paperback Reader linked to a few more reviews today...there's a lot to discover. And the image is the end paper, yes :)

    fleurfish: I fully intend to check out her other two Persephone titles :) And thank you!

    Carl: I think you'd enjoy this, yes! Laski evokes fear and entrapment so well.

    Melody: Nothing to laugh about! I think it was at Bookgirl's Nightstand that I fist heard of them, and not too long ago either.

    Trish: I haven't read that much Dickens, actually... just a few short stories and The Christmas Books. Maybe for the next Classics challenge? :P And yeah, the first two covers look very vintage horror!

    Claire: Hmm...I guess it's very subjective! Jackie at Farm Lane books didn't find it scary at all because the situation is not realistic; I did because I could really feel Melanie's fear, as well as the weight of all those Victorian social mores that marginalized women. And then I started thinking that women are STILL treated like that in so many parts of the world... I guess that more than scary, it was unsettling. Readers who found The Handmaid's Tale frightening, for example, will probably find this one frightening too. Now I'm reading Saplings by Noel Streatfeild - fabulous so far.

    Rhinoa: Gotta love short and sweet!

  28. Great review - and good choice for your first Persephone! I read this about a year ago, and must go back to it - I was so impressed, especially since it can now be read on three levels, looking back at her 'modern day' as the past too.

    Great to see those other covers - the first one is quite terrifying!

  29. Ana.. Thanks for the insight. I guess "unsettling" is okay by me. I figure most of her books are unsettling anyway. She appears to be such a gifted writer. I plan to read Little Boy Lost soon.

    Can't wait to hear your thoughts on Saplings!

  30. oh you are participating in Persephone week. How fun! I wanted to but just too crazed around here after vacation :)

    You know, I think this might have been my first Persephone book too. I discovered the imprint several years ago and actually got to visit the store about 10 years ago when I was visiting a friend in London. It's tiny but lovely to see all those grey covers together.

  31. Oh, this sounds really good! One of these days I'm going to have to finally buy myself a Persephone title. The reason I've held off is I just know that once I start I won't want to stop!

  32. I have never read any Persephone books but I really want to. And this one sounds just like something I'd like. Maybe I will start here!

  33. StuckinaBook: I agree about the first cover!

    Claire: After the other Claire's review, I'm seriously dying to read Little Boy Lost.

    Iliana: How nice that you got to go to the store! I really must whenever I visit the UK next.

    tanabata: lol, exactly :P They are addictive, and if not for my ban I'd probably have ordered a few more by now.

    Meghan, I think it's a good place to start :)

  34. "Unsettling" is just the right word for this one, which I thought was very good. I have linked to this review in my review of the same book - thanks for sharing


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