Sunday, July 23, 2023

Strange Journey - Maud Cairnes

I have a backlog of basically everything to get through right now, but specifically the British Library Women Writers series, I have at last made a start with Maud Cairnes 'Strange Journey', an enjoyable body swap comedy of manners first published in 1935. 

Polly Wilkinson admire a luxurious car caught in traffic on her street one day, then a few weeks later finds herself unexpectedly catapulted into the body of Lady Elizabeth, the woman she eventually realises was sitting in that car. These translations one to the other continue to happen for increasingly long periods much to Polly's distress (especially when she comes round to find herself on the back of a horse mid way through a hunt) until eventually the women meet in real life and start to find a way to control what's been happening to them.

It's a charming book, told mostly from Polly's point of view, though Maud Cairnes - or to give her her full name, Lady Maud Kathleen Cairnes Plantagenet Hastings Curzon-Herrick was definitely from the Lady Elizabeth end of the social scale. I can't think of another body swap comedy which takes class as it's central theme as this one does, but it works remarkably well.

Polly makes a number of social faux pas but it's obvious that Cairns is mocking the artificial sophistication of her own set rather than the more natural manners of Polly's lower middle class circle. Polly comes to enjoy aspects of her time as Lady Elizabeth, notably her clothes and jewelry but her own marriage is altogether happier, her discontents more easily addressed.

Lady Elizabeth's husband sounds like a bit of a cad and although they manage to negotiate a new start in their marriage thanks to Polly's prodding their happy ending seems almost more unlikely than the body swap element, or at least it does if you have a dim view of infidelity). Polly's biggest issue is that her life is so hemmed in that she has very little privacy, but it's entirely probable that after her time as Lady Elizabeth she will find ways to carve out some space for herself.

The point of 'Strange Journey' though is it's charm which none of this conveys. It's a good natured, funny, book with female solidarity at it's heart. It doesn't take itself too seriously, and neither should we, but it's entirely enjoyable with an added pathos for the modern reader because we know that war isn't far away and have a good idea of how it'll upset the world for all the Polly's and Lady Elizabeth's.  


  1. Glad you enjoyed this one, Hayley - absolutely agree that female solidarity is at its heart (and it could so easily have pitted woman against woman)

  2. I love that you got a shout out from Jo Walton in her Tor article (i think it was September What I Read) for this one- I kind of squealed a little bit!