Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Review: Strange Journey by Maud Cairnes

Vintage body-swap, with vintage sensibilities

 Body swapping is a well-used trope, familiar in modern media, but dating back farther than you might think. F. Anstey had a father and son switch bodies, in his 1882 novel Vice Versa; and in 1931 Thorne Smith did it again with a husband and wife in Turnabout. In these cases—and in most of the more modern Freaky Friday versions1—what makes the story work is that the swappers know each other. Indeed, body swapping is a useful narrative tool by which two acquaintences can further develop a high-stakes relationship by learning what each other’s lives are like from the inside.

Maud Cairnes’s Strange Journey (1935) does something different: The swappers are complete strangers. They’ve never met. There are no stakes to their relationship, because they haven’t got one. So instead what we have is a relationship that is created by the body-swap, and in fact could not have been created without it, because the two swappers come from decidedly different walks of life.  

Our narrator is Polly Wilkinson, a middle class housewife with an affectionate husband, two lovely children, and a whole haul of domestic, family, and social responsibilities that go along with such a life. Her partner in swappage, Lady Elizabeth Forrester, is a wealthy aristocrat with a strained marriage, living a life of unimaginable (to Polly) luxury. A country house; a town house; horses and jewels; cabinet ministers and internationally famous concert pianists swirl around her social circle. Throughout their repeated unintentional swaps, Polly and Elizabeth find themselves in a position to either cause trouble for the other, or perhaps smooth over difficulties that the other doesn't have the ability to handle. Polly finds herself determined to figure out what's wrong with Elizabeth's marriage and fix it, while Elizabeth uses her superior social acumen to help Polly organize events that are important for her husband’s career. In the end, everything resolves itself in this book exactly as you might expect from a respectable novel of this era.

If you allow yourself to take this book for what it is, which is a fluffy, light, quite surfacy romp, then there is a lot to enjoy here. The social circles of Polly and Elizabeth are very well realized, and each woman’s fish-out-of-water behaviour in the other’s body makes for some excellent situational comedy. For example, Polly and Elizabeth have different artistic taste: Elizabeth is refined, and adores atonal, discordant music and foreign theater, while Polly is basic: She likes Ronald Coleman and romantic comedies. So Polly in Elizabeth’s body ends up snubbing a concert pianist quite badly when she insists he play show tunes; while Elizabeth in Polly’s body makes a dreadful hash of things when she tries to organize a group outing to the theatre and selects a Romanian play that ends up being inappropriate for unmarried ladies.

The best of these hijinks take place during the middle portion of the book, when Polly is convinced that Elizabeth is responsible for controlling the timing of their swaps. After one particular swap that causes Polly to miss Christmas with her family, she grows indignant about it all, and decides to cause mischief for Elizabeth. Not much mischief, because remember that this book doesn’t go very far in any particular component, but certainly enough to pep things up entertainingly, if you’re in a mood to find a high-stakes bridge game sufficient excitement.

The most interesting components of this book lie in the treatment of class. Polly and Elizabeth are fish out of water not just because they are strangers to each other, but because they are from such distinct social classes. Elizabeth’s high-handed manner in Polly’s body surprises her acquaintences, but has many benefits: she puts overbearing relatives in their place; she can talk comfortably with Polly’s husband’s boss without being overawed. She’s not shy about extending invitations and being socially bold in ways that Polly would never dare to be. Polly, by contrast, makes repeated errors of behavior that are rooted in class, which Elizabeth’s acquaintances at first think are jokes, but later leaves them equally confused. When Polly is presented with Elizabeth’s jewel box while dressing for dinner, she is so gobsmacked by all the sparkly pretty things that she puts on as much as she can manage, resulting in much commentary at dinner that reveals she has dramatically overdone it. She doesn’t know that the correct term of address for herself is ‘Lady Elizabeth’ instead of ‘Lady Forrester, and she calls her father ‘Dad’ instead of the more refined . . . ---actually, I’m not sure what she should have used instead. Papa? Father? I’m not posh enough to know, but it’s clear that ‘Dad’ is incorrect.

(I am struck, however, by the fact that Elizabeth’s importation of upper class manners into Polly’s life has a general tendency to the good, while Polly’s importation of middle class manners into Elizabeth’s life does not.2 This asymmetry of the class-based manners is, perhaps, less of a surprise when I reveal that the author’s full name is Lady Maud Kathleen Cairnes Plantagenet Hastings, daughter of the 15th Earl of Huntingdon. Plantagenet Hastings, good grief. )

 More striking still is a revelation that I think the book doesn’t take nearly far enough: namely, that Polly in her own life has no time to call her own. Every minute of her day is taken up with obligations to the house, the children, the social circle of neighbors and relatives who see everything she does and will be bound to ask questions if she needs to step out for an afternoon to arrange a clandestine visit with an aristocratic body-swap partner. She used to write to her friends from school, but over the years has had to give that up, too. She can have no secrets, no privacy, no life of her own—but it’s not until she tastes the freedom of Elizabeth’s life (a freedom made possible by a neglectful, straying husband who doesn’t care what she does, to be sure) that she realizes what she lacks. This is a very touching moment, and afterwards it is entirely dropped. It’s as if this description of Polly’s constrained life is only important for what it means for the plot’s requirement that Polly find a way to have a private meeting. The revelations about the concessions Polly’s made to her tidy domestic comfort are almost inadverdently revealed, and never explored.

Another consideration that is hampered by the ethos of its time is the ethics of sex in other people’s bodies. If the closest you want to come to mentioning the existence of sex is to say that a ‘foreign’ play is inappropriate for unmarried ladies to watch, it’s going to be hard to give adequate consideration to how Polly and Elizabeth must handle their relations with their husbands. When Elizabeth wakes up in Polly’s bed next to Polly’s husband, she immediately leaps from the bed and runs from the room. When Polly tries to reconcile Elizabeth(‘s body) with Elizabeth’s husband Gerald, she has to tread a fine line of signalling her openness to further intimacy, while taking great pains never even to kiss him. (This sends some extremely mixed signals to poor Gerald). She frets a bit about whether it counts as unfaithfulness to her own husband, given that her own actual body remains decidedly uninvolved in the potential romantic interaction, but in the end remains firm about never actually taking any action, even in Elizabeth’s body. And given the period and intended readership of the book, I don’t think she could have done any differently.

What concerns me more about this dilemma, however, is not whether such an action would count as cheating (yes, obviously it would), but whether it would be rape. And if so, of whom? Of Gerald, who most certainly did not consent to sleep with Polly, whatever she looks like? Probably.3 But also of Elizabeth, who is not on terms of sexual intimacy with Gerald and would not consent for her body to be used in this way if she were in it. Her absence from her own body is pretty parallel with being drugged or unconscious, or otherwise unable to consent to sex.

In sum, then, this book is decidedly of its time, which results in a lack of depth in its treatment of the quite deep issues it raises. It’s a light frolic, and enjoyable for what it is, as long as you don’t mind the author covering your eyes and putting her fingers in your ears at the difficult bits.

Star Trek has quite a few body swap plots: TOS Turnabout Intruder swaps Kirk and Janet Lester, an old lover; VOY Vis A Vis swaps Tom Paris and an alien of the week (although in this one the swappers aren’t well acquainted); SNW Spock Amok swaps Spock and T’Pring.
The asymmetry is also reminiscent of Star Trek TOS Mirror Mirror, in which Spock immediately detects that mirror universe counterparts have taken Kirk, McCoy and Uhura’s places, because, as he says, ‘It is far easier for […] civilized men to behave like barbarians, than for barbarians to behave like civilized men.’
3 Once again, I would like to point to Star Trek’s mirror universe, this time in the context of the the DS9 episode Through The Looking Glass, in which Sisko is abducted into the mirror universe to impersonate his mirror self and convince his mirror wife to join a rebellion. The Women at Warp podcast was pretty quick to note that any sex between prime!Sisko and mirror!Jennifer would be rape, because mirror!Jennifer would think she is consenting to sleep with mirror!Sisko, not prime!Sisko.



Nerd coefficient: 6/10, still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore
  • Body swap
  • Class-based manners
  • Hijinks and high-stakes bridge
  • Missed opportunities for deeper thoughtfulness


Anstey, F, Vice Versa: or, A Lesson to Fathers [Smith, Elder & Co., 1882].
Cairnes, Maud, Strange Journey [The British Library, 1935/2022]. 
Smith, Thorne, Turnabout [Doubleday Doran, 1931]

CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about figure skating. She is on Mastodon at