Warning: this review has more spoilers than a boy racer convention!
The story of Appius and Virginia is as interesting as the story in Appius and Virginia.
It was the first novel by Gertrude Trevelyan, already an award-winning writer, and was published in 1932 to (mostly) stunning reviews. It’s about a woman who buys a baby orangutan with the intention of raising him as a human being. Living in seclusion, Virginia teaches him over the years how to read and how to speak, albeit at a basic level. At 9 years-old and believing that he is a man, Appius’s world falls apart when he sees an image of an orangutan in a children’s book about animals labelled ‘ape’.
Appius and Virginia is for the most part a study of loneliness. Virginia, 40 years-old and unattached, at first sees raising the baby ape as nothing more than a project. An experiment for which she will one day be lauded. But as time goes on, and as her friends drift further into the past, she comes to see him as her very own child and dreams of him one day going to university and achieving great things.
However, that is not how Appius sees things. A chasm exists between how both characters perceive each other and the world. Appius barely has any grasp of concepts such as “past” and “future”, and so Virginia’s dreaming is all in vain.
It’s a compelling, original and tragic story. Trevelyan digs deep into the psyches of both Virginia and Appius and we turn every page knowing that such an “experiment” cannot possibly end well.
Virginia throughout the story projects her own aspirations onto the young ape, misreading almost all his behaviour patterns. We are never allowed to forget that despite his thin veneer of domesticity, Appius is a wild animal. This side of him is always there, barely contained beneath the surface, ready to erupt at any moment. Eventually of course, it does and the author makes no concessions to softening the inevitable blow.
GE Trevelyan went on to write seven more books, but in October 1940 she was injured in a German bombing raid and died about four months later. She was described in her death certificate as “Spinster – an authoress”.
After her death her novels fell out of print and were sadly forgotten. Until now, that is. Appius and Virginia is once again available thanks to the Abandoned Bookshop, a publisher whose “mission is to track down forgotten books of the past and re-publish them for a modern audience.”
And thank goodness they did.
I finished reading this book in the hope that others by GE Trevelyan will also be resurrected. Thank you, Abandoned Bookshop.