Strange Journey by Maud Cairnes – A 1935 novel of an unusual life swap reprinted in the British Library Women Writers series

Strange Journey by Maud Cairnes

This is a 1935 novel that is not so much about a journey as an uncanny swap – two women swap lives, families and situations in a unique way. Gloriously reprinted in the British Library Women Writers series with contextual introductions and afterword, this is a novel which achieves so much in its relatively short length, and I found it fascinating. The idea is that two women, different in personality, class and virtually every way, unexpectedly inhabit each other’s bodies for  short times. Thus it is not a change that anyone else notices, physically at least, so both Polly and Elizabeth have to improvise rapidly. It happens without warning for short periods at different times, so the potential for confusion is always there, not to mention actual danger in at least one one case. This book is set in its own time context, so it provides a fascinating insight into women’s lives in the mid 1930s, as without being overly melodramatic it shows the differences in each woman’s lifestyle. It is written in a completely naturalistic way; as Polly tries to find her way around a huge country house, and the more socially confident Lady Elizabeth deals with Polly’s situation. I really enjoyed the writing, the details of daily life, and the ways both women tried to deal with a situation that they could not reveal to anyone. For a first novel it is remarkably assured, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.

Polly narrates the novel; she describes how a short feeling of dizziness results in her finding herself in another woman’s body. Polly is a happily married wife to Tom, mother to two small children. Her family could be described as middle class, they live in an ordinary house in London with two servants and Tom works full time. They have a modest income; Polly does not need to have paid work and there is money for most things. The woman she appears to be on a temporary basis is titled in her own right, with a large country house and very comfortable lifestyle and extensive social circle. Her marriage to Gerald is not happy; indeed he seems to be enjoying an extended “flirtation” with at least one woman known to Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s reactions to the shape shifting are not known to Polly or the reader, and Polly comes to believe that Elizabeth is causing the changes. Certainly they seem to happen when Polly is enjoying her own life, and can result in her having to deal with difficulties such as riding a large horse or encountering famous speakers and musicians. It is a book of its time, with smoking and hunting being acceptable past times, and there is a certain embarrassment in realising that they are encountering each other’s husbands who are completely unaware that their wives are different.

I found this book so interesting because of its low key acceptance of an enormous situation. There are some funny incidents and many revealing descriptions of the minutiae of both women’s lives; Polly is a spirited narrator who partly enjoys the comfortable lifestyle and the contact with people she has only glimpsed in newspapers and magazines, but it is combined with the fear of making revealing errors or being labelled as mentally disturbed, though this is not in any way a traumatic novel. Rather there are mixed feelings about Tom and the mysterious Gerald and the children, as Elizabeth has none yet is catapulted into looking after Polly’s two. This is a lovely novel of social history as it was written very much as a contemporary piece, which makes the reader as confused as Polly sometimes is, as expectations of women have certainly changed in many ways. This is an entertaining read, an intriguing read, and a fantastic account of women’s lives in the 1930s which I heartily recommend.