His Monkey Wife by John Collier

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Reviewed by Simon

When I told people that I was writing about bestiality during my DPhil, they were a little surprised that it got a look-in amongst the charming middlebrow novels that I talked about most. Now that Daunt Books have reprinted His Monkey Wife (originally published in 1930, and reprinted a couple of times by various publishers across the years) I can finally tell people that it’s about bestiality and is somehow charming.

Collier is apparently a better known name in the US, for short stories, but this droll little tale is about Alfred Fatigay who, while teaching in the Congo, manages to win the heart of Emily. There are two dilemmas: Alfred is engaged to a spoilt brat called Amy, and… Emily is a chimpanzee (not the monkey of the title).

The first throes of Darwinism had obviously already hit British consciousnesses, but its influence stretched to the 1920s and ‘30s in fiction (and, indeed, beyond – as a recent Booker-shortlisted novel attests). In G.E Trevelyan’s Appius and Virginia, for example, somebody is trying to educate a chimpanzee with relatively little success: Alfred is obviously a better teacher, as Emily quickly becomes intelligent to a degree that rather exceeds any of the humans around her. And she’s fallen in love.

Who would have thought, seeing the trim little brown figure trip so self-containedly through the village, or describe such a suave arc on the end of the swinging bough that landed her pat, here, back again at Mr. Fatigay’s feet, as he sat at dinner on the verandah: who would have thought, seeing all this, that beneath that rather Charlotte Brontë surface, there was, actually, a Charlotte Brontë interior, full of meek pride, hopeless hope and timid determination.

He heads back to England and his fiancée Amy, with Emily in tow. It’s rather mystifying that either Alfred or Amy see anything in each other, since they are entirely incompatible. Amy isn’t bothered about books, and lives only for pretty things; Emily fumes to the side about how much better she’d be for Alfred – only, of course, she can’t speak.

There are various shenanigans from there, including kidnap and disguise, and ultimately… well, the title rather gives away what happens between Alfred and Emily. What makes Collier’s novel so good is that he is not a sensationalist; Emily’s internal voice is given to us so consistently that she seems not only intelligent but rather more likeable than all the other characters. Even when describing their love scenes, Collier just describes, allowing the scene’s actions to have their own effect without authorial intrusion.

Under her long and scanty hair he caught glimpses of a plum-blue skin. Into the depths of those all-dark lustrous eyes, his spirit slid with no sound of splash. She uttered a few low words, rapidly, in her native tongue. The candle, guttering beside the bed, was strangled in the grasp of a prehensile foot, and darkness received, like a ripple in velvet, the final happy sigh.

His writing throughout is rather beautiful – perhaps, to borrow an adjective from the above paragraph, lustrous. In its period, it didn’t quite fit in to the high modernists and their streams of consciousness or the middlebrow writers and their traditional prose forms (if we can be forgiven a moment of over-simplifying the division). Instead, he chose a style all of his own – borrowing the ornate sentences and descriptions of the Victorians without their restraints. Everything is slightly heightened, but nothing is overblown. It makes for delightful reading, yet not comfort reading or disposable fiction: Collier was a fine writer enjoying the challenge of making something silly turn into something both fun and emotionally believable. It’s a privilege to have it back in print between Daunt’s usual beautiful covers.

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Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors.

John Collier, His Monkey Wife (Daunt Books, 2015). 978-1907970788, 252pp., paperback.

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