The Victorian Chaise Longue
1973. Trippy-covered mass-market paperback reprint. Originally published in 1953.
This is another one of those paperbacks from my great-aunt Cat’s closet.
*** As always, here there be spoilers ***
I’ve always found something fundamentally frightening about the idea of being changed into something other than yourself. The “Other,” we’re told, is alien and threatening. To become someone or something other than yourself is especially horrifying, an invasion at the most intimate kind: think about Gregor Samsa becoming a giant bug or the ordeal or poor little Regan MacNeil. Think about body snatchers or the horrible things the Count does to poor Renfield. The disruption and displacement of the self is a terrifying thing to contemplate.
In The Victorian Chaise Longue, Margharita Laski takes this idea and works it into a cold and disturbing novella. If consciousness is understood as a dialogue between situation and subject, Laski successfully constructs for readers the bewildered experience of a woman who has had an unexplained change in situation that brings into question the very nature of her own subjectivity.
Her protagonist, Melanie, awakens from a nap not only in someone else’s room, but in someone else’s body. Laski has an almost Jamesian focus on the workings of the individual consciousness as Melanie attempts to understand what has happened to her and, more to the point, how to undo it. Laski most effectively conveys Melanie’s divided subjectivity when the character speaks about facts or ideas that clearly come from her Victorian-era “host” Milly, and have not become conscious to Melanie before she speaks. Milly’s uncanny utterances show that there is more here than a simple transplanting of Melanie’s mind into Milly’s body—there is an uneasy and inexplicable union.
The story is claustrophobic and unnerving. At first, it seems that the only thread that binds Melanie to Milly is the chair on which they both recline. As Melanie’s experience as Milly unfurls, however, we begin to see more points of contact: both women suffer from tuberculosis and both of them have recently given birth to children. The tension mounts. At first, the greatest danger facing Melanie seems to be the uncanny gap separating her from her own life, or perhaps Milly’s precarious health. As the story proceeds, however, it becomes clear that there is an even greater hazard: while Melanie is happily married to the father of her child, Milly is an unmarried invalid who has not revealed the identity of her lover. This is, of course, a serious breach of Victorian sexual mores, and Melanie’s failure to understand Milly’s precarious situation ultimately has fatal consequences.
The horror here is just as politically charged as in Levin’s Stepford Wives. In both stories, the female protagonist meets her doom because she runs afoul of patriarchy’s prescribed notion of proper womanly behavior. Curiously, in both instances the fatal blow is struck by a woman (Joanna Eberhart is presumably knifed—off screen, as it were—by Bobbie; Milly is beaten to death by her enraged sister, Adelade). It’s obvious, however, that neither of these killers are the true authors of these fates. Bobbie is an automaton controlled by those insidious Stepford husbands, and Adelade’s rage is engendered by a Victorian social order that she is complicit in but did not create. Read alongside The Stepford Wives, Laski’s book reinforces the sense that for women, horror is often a function of home and family. And like Rosemary’s Baby, it reminds us how much female sexuality and reproduction are subject to manipulation, violence, and body-terror.