Strange Journey by Maud Cairnes

Reviewed by Harriet

This is a body-swap novel – one of the first ever to be published. It’s very entertaining but also quite thought provoking. The swappers here are Polly Wilkinson and Lady Elizabeth Forrester. The two women are more or less the same age (late twenties), and both are married. But here the similarity ends. Polly is a housewife with two young children and Lady Elizabeth is childless. Polly and her husband Tom are contented together (though she rather guiltily fancies the film stars she sees on her weekly cinema visits) and Lady Elizabeth’s marriage is not happy – her husband has girlfriends and she’s sad and lonely. But the main difference of course, as you can tell from their names, is their social status. Polly’s pleasant, simple home is in the London suburbs and Lady Elizabeth lives sometimes in a stately home in the country and sometimes in a grand London house.

The story starts with Polly leaning on her front gate. She’s tired, cross, and disappointed that she won’t be able to go to the latest Ronald Colman picture, as her maid is late again. As she watches the road gloomily, she sees a Rolls Royce gliding towards her, with a woman sitting inside.

Suddenly I felt a longing to change places with her, to get into that big, comfortable looking car, lean back in the soft cushions I felt sure that it contained, while the chauffeur made it glide away to some pleasant house where there would be efficient servants and tea waiting, with a silver teapot, thin china, and perhaps hot scones, nice deep armchairs to sit in, and magazines on the table.

Many women in Polly’s position would probably share that longing, but it’s unlikely that a week later, remembering it while looking at a very similar car in a magazine, they would have been overcome with giddiness, opened their eyes, and found themselves in a strange room in a strange house. That is what happens to Polly, of course. The first thing she notices is her hands, white and slim with several grand rings. Then there’s her green satin dress, and finally her impressive surroundings, quite different from her own very ordinary little house. What she assumes is a dream turns into a nightmare when two dogs run in and start growling and howling when they catch sight of her. She longs to wake up, and at once the giddiness returns and she finds herself back in her own home. 

This proves to be the first of many such occurrences. Polly soon discovers that while she is in what she finds out is Lady Elizabeth’s body and home, Lady Elizabeth is in hers. This leads, of course, to many humorous moments, such as when Polly surprises the Forrester family by her skill at bridge, a game that Lady Elizabeth has always said she hated, or, conversely, when Tom and his relatives are astonished by some impressive piano playing – Polly apparently never learned, but of course Lady Elizabeth is now in her body. Smoking provides another hurdle for Polly – it makes her sick, while Lady Elizabeth is something of a chain smoker – and she’s interested to discover that though she has to refuse the cigarettes that are constantly offered to her, her body is simultaneously craving for one.

Naturally Polly’s biggest challenge is finding her way around the huge grand house, discovering who everybody is and how she is connected with them. It’s particularly awkward to negotiate her relationship with Lady Elizabeth’s husband, who she finds disturbingly attractive. She’s constantly putting her foot in it in public, and her use of language sometimes shocks people: she calls ‘her’ father ‘Dad’, talks about ‘taking a tumble’, and refers to infidelity as ‘carr[ying] on with other men’, all of these, in 1935 when the novel was published, distinctly not the usage of the upper classes. There’s an embarrassing moment when she asks a butler to announce her as ‘Lady Forrester’: Polly could not be expected to know that, as the daughter of an Earl rather than the wife of one, she must be addressed as Lady Elizabeth. 

At first Polly is angry, assuming that Lady Elizabeth is responsible for these recurring exchanges. But when finally, and satisfyingly, the two women meet in real life, it turns out that Elizabeth is just as bemused as Polly. The two strike up a friendship, and are able to analyse each others’ lives in detail, and to help make some welcome changes. Elizabeth has spotted a budding relationship between one of Polly’s cousins and an elderly neighbour and, once she has pointed it out to Polly, it doesn’t take much tactful encouragement for the two to become engaged. Conversely, Polly is certain that Elizabeth’s husband really loves her, despite his flirtations (or probably affairs) with other women. When she manages to convince Elizabeth that this is the case, the way is opened up for a resolution to an unhappy marriage. The women do work out a way of body swopping by design, which proves helpful in a couple of tricky situations, but they never discover the mechanics that lie behind the whole thing. And nor do we, but that doesn’t in any way affect the enjoyment of the story.

Another layer of interest is added to the novel by the fact that Maud Cairnes was the nom-de-plume of Lady Maud Kathleen Cairnes Plantagenet Hastings Curzon-Herrick. She, like her protagonist, was the daughter of an Earl – the 15th Earl of Huntingdon – and was therefore known as Lady Kathleen. Her life would have been very similar to that of Lady Elizabeth, of course, but her depiction of Polly and her very different background, speech and behaviour is impressive. Indeed, she seems more sympathetic to Polly’s humbler lifestyle than to the artificial goings on of Lady Elizabeth’s aristocratic one. Could this be an indication that she sometimes wished for a simpler life herself? We’ll never know. She only published one more novel, The Disappearing Duchess, in 1939, which seems to be unavailable. Perhaps someone will find a copy and reprint it. I’d certainly read it.

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Harriet is co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Maud Cairnes, Strange Journey (British Library Women Writers, 2022). 978-0712354950, 196pp., paperback original.

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