A London Sunday in mid-June, the weather threatening one moment, humid the next. After a luncheon at The Jugged Hare of bath chaps and langoustine, and a stroll through the arboretum in the Barbican, I find myself in St Giles-Without-Cripplegate, in the City of London, still one of the most deserted places you could be in a metropolis of eight million people.
An elderly lady is carefully tidying columns of paperbacks – there’s a book fair here today, although there are only two other attendees, both young and Polish.
Every minute or so a blast of an air-driven note sounds through the great stone arches. A white-haired lady organist is teaching a young girl about the lengths of the stops, saying ‘I know it’s complex, but you’ll soon get the hang of it.’
I buy half a dozen books. The old lady says ‘Do you desire a paper bag for your purchases?’ I find a complete set of James Morris’s history of the British Empire for £6, and a novel called ‘The Victorian Chaise-Longue’ by Marghanita Laski that will keep me awake that night.
The novel, published in 1953, concerns Melanie, a young mother recovering from tuberculosis, who is moved from her bed to the Victorian chaise-longue she bought in a junk shop. Falling asleep, she awakes inside another sickened body in an earlier time, surrounded by solicitous strangers.
The sights and smells of the Victorian era are seen through Melanie’s modern senses as she tries to understand her plight. The connecting bridge between the two eras of 1953 and the mid-1800s seems to be the chaise-longue itself, but Melanie cannot return because her earlier failing body keeps her pinned in the chair, and she is equally held in place by the airless repression of the times. Eerie and disturbingly open to interpretation, the novel is a forgotten gem that bothers me deeply.
A casual afternoon had produced a small joy; I would not have discovered the book had it not been for the stroll, and the pleasure of the unexpected that cannot truly come from surfing the internet, because it lacks direct experience. But sadly, I also realise I am now in a very tiny minority of people drawing pleasure from what has become an arcane activity.