Tuesday 25 October 2011

Appius and Virginia - G.E. Trevelyan

Keep the titles coming on yesterday's post, folks - I'm really enjoying them.  And well done for spotting my oh-so-subtle allusion to one in my post title (but nobody spotted the deliberate mistake!)

Onto other matters.  One of the best things about blogging is, as we all know, collecting recommendations from other people's blogs and comments - so many wonderful reads we wouldn't have encountered otherwise, and I love to do my bit in recommending, since my reading tends away from the popular and well-known.  But I also love to hear recommendations from you lot, the more obscure the better, and was delighted when Virginia told me about Appius and Virginia (1932) by G.E. Trevelyan, because she thought it might be useful for my thesis (which it is) and added that the book is interesting but not brilliant.  I agree with her assessment - but I think it is still interesting enough to warrant blogging about.  Also, someone pointed out a while ago, in a comment here, that unless readers of obscure books blog about them, there will be no online record of a book.  Currently there are quite a few copies for sale online, but no synopsis or opinion on it (unless you count the ebay seller who assures the reading public that it is a 'very good book' and - coincidentally! - one he is selling.)

Appius and Virginia concerns a youngish woman, but confirmed spinster, who decides to experiment by raising an ape as a human.  I'm not a scientist and I'm not especially interested in whether or not the events of the novel could take place (I'm fairly sure they couldn't - Appius learns a lot of spoken language very quickly; I've read about apes using a form of sign language, but not verbal communication) but I'm very happy to take these things on sight, disbelief suspended.  If you would find that too tricky, this definitely isn't the novel for you!

(Incidentally, I can't see any similarities to Webster's play Appius and Virginia, nor the real-life Appius, but I am garnering my info on them from Wikipedia - step forward if you're better qualified than me to comment on the topic, and you really couldn't be less able than me.)

Virginia is rather an unsociable woman, earnest and persistent and not especially likeable.  Nor, however, is she dislikeable - her whole being seems occupied with the raising of Appius, and the reader sees very little of her character outside of this experiment.  Although I never really notice description of people's appearances, and thus cannot swear to this, to my mind Virginia looks rather like the photo I later found of Trevelyan herself (below).

In many ways, Trevelyan's novel relates to Edith Olivier's wonderful little book The Love-Child - a spinster longs for the child she cannot have through traditional avenues, and so finds a creative way to fill this void.  For it becomes clear that Virginia, although interested in the pragmatics of an experiment, is motivated chiefly by loneliness - as she explains herself, to Appius:
"I was so lonely.  I wanted you to grow up as my child.  I wanted you to be human.  I wanted you to be something even more than a child, something I’d made with my own brain out of nothing, and shaped as I wanted it, and watched grow."
Which makes it sound as though Appius becomes capable of understanding complex sentences.  I shan't spoil the direction the experiment eventually takes, although I will hint that it takes somewhat disturbing steps, but most of the novel follows his increasing understanding of language and communication - but slower than Virginia hopes.  He follows some of what she says, but not all - the progression from concrete thoughts to the abstract, for instance, takes time.  Some of Trevelyan's more experimental (and, to my mind, least successful) passages attempt to reflect the internal workings of Appius' mind:
Hand on white line above him.  Fingers won’t go over it.  Why not?  Something there; the pale blue stuff.  Hard and cold.  Try white wisps.  Hard too.  Can’t be held.  Funny.
That, by the way, is the sky seen through a window.  I can see where she is going with these sections, which flit between the primitive and the avant-garde, but ultimately I don't think Trevelyan is a good enough writer to get away with this approach.  And it is an approach which requires a very able writer - the dismantling of sentences and experimentation with language can so easily irritate, and even people like James Joyce irk rather than impress me.

While Trevelyan treats her topic in an interesting manner, she obviously has difficulty keeping the momentum going.  Each chapter adds a couple of years to the experiment, but very little changes - all the scenes take place in the house or the garden, and that gives
the novel a claustrophobic atmosphere.  Some of the scenes are done very well - when Appius first sees a mirror, for example, or his inability to distinguish between sentient and insentient objects leading to a battle with the fire - but what Appius and Virginia really lacks is humour.  Earnestness can kill a novel for me, and although Trevelyan's novel didn't die, it was a little bit wounded.

So - if this were available on shelves easily, I would probably recommend it as an interesting and unusual read.  There are the rudiments for a fascinating novel, although sadly Trevelyan doesn't have the charm or poignancy of Edith Olivier and The Love-Child.  But since it's so difficult to track down in the UK, I could only really recommend US readers hunt this out.

But I will end with possibly the most accomplished paragraph from the novel, or at least the section which met most with my approval.  Virginia imagines what her life will be like if she fails in her attempt to humanise Appius, and what follows is as striking a portrait of the lonely spinster as I have encountered.  If only the rest of the novel had been at this level.
She would go back to Earl’s Court and her bed-sitting-room – gas fire and griller, separate meters; to her consumption of novels from the lending library; her bus rides to the confectioner’s; her nightly sipping of conversation and coffee in the lounge: to middle-age in a ladies’ residential club.  Each year a little older, a little stouter or a little thinner, a little less quickly off the bus – “Come along there, please, come along,” and the struggle with umbrella and parcels through the ranks of inside passengers, and the half compassionate, half contemptuous hand of the conductor, grimy and none too gentle as she clambers down the swaying steps on to the sliding pavement. – Each year a little less bright in the after-dinner conversation; a little less able to remember the novels she has read; a little less able to find a listener; a little less able to live, yet no more ready for death.
Thanks for telling me about this, Virginia!


  1. I'm definitely curious about this and have added it to my TBR, although I think I'll give it some breathing space so I don't end up comparing it with The Love Child! :)

  2. You're welcome, Simon! I'm so glad you found it interesting and helpful. And thank you for the very thoughtful review! You definitely thought much more deeply about it than I ever did. What I remember most about my reading experience of it was that I was really unsettled at the end.

    I don't think I described it as "not brillant," but rather as good, but I do agree with your analysis of it because it really isn't a brillant book. Yet, it's still readable, especially if you're interested in spinsters or weird scientific experiments. Again, thank you for the great review!

  3. Eva - great! And yes, it would definitely suffer in comparison to The Love Child, so give it a while ;)

    Virginia - thank you for your lovely comment! Sorry I misremembered your recommendation, or misreading it, I thought you had expressed doubts about its quality. But thanks for mentioning it, it will make a very useful paragraph in my next chapter!


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