A Happy New Year to you! I’m starting 2023 on the blog with an obscure classic that took me by surprise…
Gertrude Trevelyan published eight novels before she died tragically young in 1941, from injuries incurred when her home was bombed in the Blitz. She fell into obscurity, but a few years ago her work was rediscovered by Brad Bigelow of the Neglected Books Page. This led eventually to her debut novel, 1932’s Appius and Virginia, being reissued. It’s the story of a woman who raises an orang-utan as a human child, and from that description, I was expecting to be rather whimsical. It really isn’t.
Virginia Hutton is on her own aged 40 and frustrated with life. She decides to conduct an experiment to see if an ape can be nurtured into humanity. This is her chance to leave a mark:
All her will power, all her suggestive force, her whole reserve of nervous and mental energy, was not too much to expend on this experiment. For If it succeeded she would indeed have achieved something. She would have created a human being out of purely animal material, have forced evolution to cover in a few years stages which unaided it would have taken aeons to pass…
Virginia buys a young orang-utan, names him Appius, and retreats from London to the countryside to set about her task. It isn’t easy, because Appius experiences the world on a much more abstract level than Virginia, and often he doesn’t understand what she’s trying to tell him, or why she does what she does. But eventually, Appius gains skills such as rudimentary speech and the ability to read, and Virginia feels she’s making progress. Oh, what a future she imagines for Appius – and herself:
She saw him, in Eton suit and shining collar, bowing over an armful of gilt and crimson tomes while the oak-panelled hall resounded with discrete, kid-gloved applause. She saw herself in the front row, surrounded by secretly envious parents and gratified masters, clapping shyly, blushing a little at this honour paid to her big boy, doing him credit by her clothes, her sleight figure, her youthful but not too girlish appearance.
Key to Virginia’s approach, though, is keeping Appius unaware of his true animal nature. There are times when this breaks through despite her best efforts, and the whole reading experience becomes something much rawer, elemental. The unbridgeable gap between Appius and Virginia becomes more apparent as the novel reaches a higher pitch – until the ending, which gives me chills just thinking back on it.