We’ve all had a moment where we wished we were someone else, where we’ve looked at someone’s life and briefly envied their seemingly calm and comfortable existence. When Polly does this, watching an expensive car glide past her (admittedly very comfortable middle-class) house one evening, she has such a moment. Days later, she feels briefly dizzy and, on reopening her eyes, finds herself now in the body of Lady Elizabeth. Cairnes’ novel plays the body-swap story for light comedy and warmth (Polly has a better appetite than Elizabeth and the Bridge scene is marvellous), but there’s no doubting the disconcerting and isolating impact Polly feels as she first finds herself trapped in a different life. Having witnessed a pheasant shoot, Polly ‘longed for home and Tom with all [her] heart’, but she has little control over events at this stage.
Once Polly’s curiosity about Elizabeth’s life is piqued, she starts to become more adventurous. I loved the scenes where Polly adopts personas of the vamps she’s watched in the pictures she has a particular taste for, largely because of her ‘new’ husband’s responses. A stranger playing his wife and attempting another layer of character is too much for him, particularly given that his wife’s behaviour is at odds with what has gone before:
‘”You do not seem to dislike me when I’m unlike myself.” I smiled at him with my head on one side, like Vera Ambrose. He came nearer and looked down at me. ‘You’re incredibly ghastly when you put on that coy manner, my dear’.
Playing Elizabeth, as Polly learns slowly to do through trial and error, is her version of being a film actress. In terms of fantasy fulfilment, her ‘new’ husband is even more handsome than Ronald Colman, and Carnes certainly creates a romantic frisson when the two dance together. We don’t get to see Elizabeth’s experiences in her ‘new’ home but Polly picks up enough clues to suggest Elizabeth has brought a bit more freedom and challenge into Polly’s existence. It’s perhaps a sign of the times, but I felt that Tom’s behaviour towards his wife – despite being seen as the steady and loyal husband in the novel – borders on the controlling (once Elizabeth and Polly meet up to compare notes, Polly frets about how she can visit Elizabeth without Tom causing a fuss because she is out of the house). It’s a fascinating account of what a ‘happy’ marriage perhaps looks like in 1935.
I don’t think The British Library folk can put a foot wrong – this is another excellent choice for republishing and, as with all the titles in the series, it comes with fascinating notes and an insightful afterword by Series Consultant Simon Thomas. Well worth a look – and a reminder to be careful what you wish for!