I think that I’m quickly becoming a devotee of Persephone Books. I think it’s a bit like a boutique, in the way that lovely gems of stories seem to be picked and gathered together so that you can try something a bit different but still be confident that the time you spend reading them won’t be wasted.
Although I used to work near to the Lambs Conduit Persephone shop, I only ever once wandered in by chance and at the time just saw lots of grey books (albeit very pretty ones) by authors I’d never heard of, and wandered out again. Much later, after reading glowing reviews of a number of Persephone publications I picked up a copy of The Shuttle from the library. Delighted with that I started looking out for the elegant grey spines whenever I pop in to borrow books and my second Persephone, The Victorian Chaise-Longue did not disappoint.
The Victorian Chaise-Longue came out in 1953 and was written by Marhanita Laski the daughter of the socialist thinker Harold Laski, and better known for being a journalist. The plot centres around a young married woman (Melanie) who, after giving birth and recovering from tuberculosis moves to recuperate on an antique chaise-longue and finds herself trapped inside the body of a young woman (Milly) 90 years previous. The normally pampered Melanie, frightened out of her wits, struggles to understand the situation and new identity.
The Victorian Chaise-longue is less than 100 pages which I think was just right. Long enough to develop the character of Melanie and short enough to hold the suspense. I suppose you would categorise the book as a horror story – a very unusual one. I did think it had the feel of Rosemary’s Baby, with the element of the vulnerable young mother and it’s definitely an unsettling book.
I really enjoyed reading the character of Melanie. It seemed that Laski was making a comment about the way in which women can have an external ‘face’ with men which seems suppliant while actually being quite conscious and active in their behaviour.
“‘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.”
I also liked the fact that Melanie was a vibrant and passionate character, much to the annoyance of her doctor:
“As he had expected, by the time he had finished Melanie was sitting bolt upright in bed, suffused with excitement. He sighed theatrically, and instantly she shot down again. Why, in heaven’s name, can’t she do things gently, said the doctor to himself.”
What I think is good about Laski’s storytelling is that it is a subtle. She sows the seed of an idea in the reader’s mind, but leaves you to think about what might have happened without exactly telling you. For example, throughout the story different characters allude to something that Milly has done which is sinful, then a confrontation with another character gives clues to what has happened. I found this element of obscurity worked really well, and I didn’t find it frustrating as I did when I read Henry James’ Turn of the Screw.
I really felt that I’d been treated to an original story in The Victorian Chaise-longue and one that was elegantly told. It’s not currently in print, unfortunately but if you like off-beat slightly unsettling stories like me I would definitely recommend you keep your eyes peeled for a second-hand copy.
What suspenseful stories have you read lately that you enjoyed?