Of all the books in the Persephone catalogue this is the one I’ve been looking forward to reading the most. Maybe it was the word ‘Victorian’ that appealed to me (I’m slightly obsessed with the Victorian period) or maybe it’s just that it has sounded so fascinating in every review I’ve read. I’ve seen this book described as a horror story – ‘a little jewel of horror’. For me, though, it wasn’t so much frightening as unsettling and creepy.
Melanie Langdon is a young mother recovering from tuberculosis in bed at her home in 1950s London. When the doctor tells her she can move to another room for a change of scenery, Melanie decides to lie on the chaise-longue in the drawing room, an ugly item of Victorian furniture she had purchased in an antique shop.
Melanie lies on the chaise-longue and falls asleep – but when she awakens, something has changed. She’s still lying on the same chaise-longue, she still has TB, but it’s now the year 1864, she’s being cared for her by her hostile sister Adelaide, and her name is no longer Melanie – it’s Milly. Is Melanie dreaming? Remembering a previous life? Has she really travelled back in time and become somebody else?
Who is Milly Baines? came the gradual inquiry, and at last she looked, as she had not dared to before, at what was immediately around her, examined, tested, interpreted the feeling of this body of Milly Baines in which was imprisoned the brain of Melanie Langdon.
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. The book conveys a sense of confusion, panic and disorientation and I could really feel Melanie’s helplessness as she lay on the chaise-longue, trapped in Milly’s body, desperately trying to work out who she was and how she could escape.
What makes Melanie’s story so disturbing and nightmarish is that although she has apparently been transported back in time, she has kept all of her twentieth-century ideas and sensibilities. As Milly, she finds herself a victim of the repression of Victorian society and there’s nothing she can do to change her situation.
At only 99 pages, this book can easily be read in an hour, but there’s so much packed into those 99 pages that the story will stay in your mind for a lot longer than that.