Monday, 15 June 2015
His Monkey Wife by John Collier
Well, this certainly was a book! Not a fun book, one full of racism and sexism and irritatingness, but certainly a book!
I had to put in a special request to retrieve this from off-site storage, and I can really see why it isn't read so much these days. Unless, of course, someone was making a study about snide British colonialism and smug dismissals of the New Woman. Which I hope someone is doing. This could be a little known but prominent component.
The main character is a teacher in Africa, where he loves Black people, although this part of the book is full of stereotypes about them. While there, he acquires a chimpanzee, names her Emily, and Emily learns how to read, falls in love with him, and pines away. She also saves him from an evil and lascivious African woman who tries to seduce him, and failing that, to have him killed.
He takes Emily with him when he goes back to England as a present to his fiancee, Amy, which rocks Emily to her core. Everyone they meet mistakes Emily for a person, which...really? Okay. I have watched chimpanzees, and even were they literate and clothed, I'm pretty sure the hair would give them away.
Amy is a model of the New Woman as perceived by Collier, which means that all her pleas for independence and time to discover herself are sheer self-centeredness and pettiness. Amy is a piece of work, not wanting to get married, but of course stringing her unfortunate fiancee along, to Emily's dismay.
Emily sneaks out to the reading room of the British Museum, and although she reads all the classics, it doesn't alter her obedient nature to the main character. *sigh*
Finally, near the end, she snaps on Amy's wedding day, takes her place, the groom doesn't notice until the kiss. The archbishop says they'll marry anything to anything these days, which...what? The main character is repulsed, but Amy can't admit what happened, tries to take the credit for a joke, and they split up. Eventually, the main character (can you tell I can't remember what his name is?) is penniless and homeless and is taken in by Emily, who has become rich and famous as a dancer (again, as a human, although I'm quite sure showgirl outfits leave little to the imagination.)
Eventually, all comes out, he forgives her and loves Emily after all, and they return to Africa. On their return, Emily is so kind and gentle and obedient and silent that every man they meet wishes they had a monkey for a wife. Ugh.
The intro tries to explain how this book isn't a dig at the New Woman, but given that, and given the ideal Emily is supposed to embody, with silence being the most notable feature, he can talk in circles all he likes, but that isn't going to make this a less irritating book.
It's not a hard read, the writing is fine, it's the ideas and story that are really offputting.