Church halls are great friends of forgotten authors. A rootle in the used-book stacks of St Giles-without-Cripplegate in London brought me to this novelist, journalist and panellist, born to a family of prominent Jewish intellectuals in Manchester in October 1915.
Rich early experience is often the key to wide-ranging interests, and so it proved with the beautiful Laski, who studied English at Oxford, worked in fashion and journalism, and married in Paris.
I imagine it would have been easy to slip into a life of comfort and privilege, but her thirst for knowledge and natural curiosity led to excellence in a number of fields. A voracious reader, she was a compulsive contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary. She became the science fiction critic for The Observer, an active campaigner for nuclear disarmament, a panellist on What's My Line?, The Brains Trust and Any Questions?, and vice chairwoman of the Arts Council, as well as a biographer, novelist, playwright and short story writer.
Although she wrote literary histories of Jane Austen, Rudyard Kipling and George Eliot, the volumes I found in St Giles were her fiction works. The Village is an unsentimental account of a couple separated by class in the Home Counties, and the shattering changes brought about by war and political change. Little Boy Lost tells of Hilary Wainwright, an English soldier, returning to a devastated France during the Second World War to trace the small boy who may be his son, lost five years before. Finding the child in a bleak orphanage, Hilary must consider the consequences of the reunion – what if the child is not his?
But it is a slender novel, The Victorian Chaise Longue, that haunted my night. Melanie, a young mother recovering from tuberculosis, is moved from her bed to a Victorian chaise longue she bought in a junk shop. Falling asleep, she awakes in 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 trapped in the chair, and she is equally held in place by the repression of the times. Eerie and disturbingly open to interpretation, the novel is a forgotten gem.
Fortunately, four Laski volumes have now been reprinted by Persephone Books.
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