It is wholeheartedly accepted by each and every book lover I know, that Persephone, an independent London based publisher, produce absolutely gorgeous books. Persephone publish classic works which have often been overlooked or forgotten, and these books are usually written by female writers, all covering a wide range of genres and text type. Never having owned a Persephone book, I immediately headed to their very cosy shop whilst in London earlier this year (you can see the resulting book haul here), and picked up Marghanita Laski’s The Victorian Chaise-Longue.
One factor played largely in my decision to purchase this particular book – it is on the Times 1000 Best Books List, and I am aiming to slowly (and I mean very slowly) work my way through them. As you can see, the effort which has gone into the design of these books has been done very, very, well, with their iconic, striking grey covers, and contrastingly vibrant end-papers. As if this was not enough, they also come complete with matching book mark (always a bonus!)
The Victorian Chaise-Longue is a short novella, consisting of merely 99 pages. It details the story of Melanie, a young woman living in the 1950’s, who is settled with a husband and young baby, but is in the middle of recovering from Tuberculosis. One day, after falling asleep, Melanie wakes up in the body of a complete stranger – from ninety years previous! Although short, this novella follows themes of time travel, madness, mental health, family and gender.
As you can imagine from its tiny page count, this is a very fast paced, easy read. It wastes no time in establishing the major plot line, and you are immediately intrigued as to what has happened and what has caused this to happen.
Whilst some have described this story as a horror, it is much more of a psychological thriller. The idea that Melanie, a happy, well placed woman, can become trapped both mentally and physically in the body of a woman in the Victorian era is terrifying. Not only is Melanie trapped in this new body, she is also trapped by the Victorian gender and ideological constructions which had imprisoned the body she now possesses; her alter-ego, Mille. Using the people who come into the room, the people who believe they are visiting the Victorian Millie, Melanie must try to piece together who this woman really is, and what has brought her to her current situation.
This sense of mystery certainly keeps you intrigued and makes you follow the story, but overall I left this read feeling slightly underwhelmed. Obviously, with its short nature, this book is never going to be able to build up a thorough relationship between the reader and the various characters. However, I did not even feel very involved with Melanie, our main protagonist. I felt that we were continually held somewhat at a distance, and we were never fully able to overcome this aloofness. Comparing this text to other novellas of similarity, such as The Yellow Wallpaper, I felt that this paled somewhat in comparison. In The Yellow Wallpaper, I felt totally engrossed in the main women’s life and the themes surrounding her mental state, and felt that the novel was hugely impressive considering its shortness. I just did not feel the same about this in comparison.
In addition, I felt rather let down by the conclusion of this novella. I have nothing against ambiguity in the endings of books, but I feel that in order for this to work properly, we need to have had some sort of full engagement in the rest of the text. Because I felt a disconnect of sorts throughout this novella, I felt that the story did not really impart anything memorable to me, and left me in a disappointing frame of mind.
The novella is well written, and the premise of the book is intriguing. I just feel that it could have perhaps been executed to a more engaging degree, and felt like I needed to get more out of this story than I actually did. If any of you have read this, please let me know how you feel!
Publisher: Persephone Books