His Monkey Wife – John Collier

Some titles are metaphors.  Some titles seem to suggest one thing, only for the book to be about something completely different – from The Silence of the Lambs to A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.  And His Monkey Wife (1930) is also a bit false… but only because he isn’t married to the monkey.  There is some question of it later.  But, as the novel kicks off, it’s simply that a monkey is in love with him.  That’s all.

Mr. Fatigay is an English schoolmaster in the Congo whose charms (mostly of a scholarly nature) win him the love and affection of Emily, a chimpanzee.  (I’m afraid I don’t know the difference between monkey, ape, and chimp, or where these things might overlap – for the sake of argument, I’ll refer to Emily as a chimp [which she definitely is] rather than the title’s monkey [which she might or might not be.])  Emily is rather a dear.  She is incredibly intelligent, and with an eavesdropping sort of learning, manages to become an expert reader – although she cannot talk.  You might remember that last October I wrote about G.E. Trevelyan’s Appius and Virginia, where a woman tries – with a limited sort of success – to educate an ape as her son.  Well, Mr. Fatigay is a fairly oblivious man, and has much greater success without even meaning to.

Is it so hard to understand how she came to a comprehension of the function of books, and even, perhaps, of the abstracter functions of language?  Our scientists may think so, who have chosen to measure the intelligence of the chimpanzee solely by its reactions to a banana.  They suspend the delicacy from the ceiling of a cage and assess the subject’s mentality in terms of the number of boxes he or she will pile one upon another in order to secure it, failing to see that nothing is revealed except the value which that particular chimp chooses to set upon the fruit.  And, beyond a certain low limit, this surely is in inverse ratio to intelligence.  What boy of ten would not pile up a dozen boxes in an attempt to climb within reach of it?  How many would Einstein clamber upon?  And how many less would Shakespeare?  Emily, though a fruitarian by instinct, would have disdained an eagerness capable of more than two and a jump.
For Emily is quite concerned with etiquette, and wants to do things properly.  And thus it pains her to break into Mr. Fatigay’s desk and read the letters from his fiancée in England – but she is not perfect, and not unafflicted by jealousy.  She is all ready to sacrifice her love at the altar of Mr. F’s happiness, but when she has read the letters, she (and the reader) realise how callous his fiancée, Amy, really is.  She is stringing out the engagement, clearly not eager for Mr. Fatigay to return from Congo.

But they do go back to England.  Emily is thrilled to be accompanying Mr. Fatigay… but less thrilled when she realises why.  He is giving her to Amy as a present, to be Amy’s maid!  Emily is not averse to a little hard work, but it is hardly dignifying to be the maid of your rival in love… especially one who shrinks from Mr. Fatigay’s touch, and treats him appallingly.  What can Emily do?….

Celebrity librarian (!) Nancy Pearl apparently called Emily one of the best characters in modern fiction, which is quite the claim –  but I can see where she’s coming from.  Emily is so charming.  Besides being besotted with Mr. Fatigay, she is wholly enamoured with books.  She manages to sneak out of Amy’s apartment to visit the British Museum – and becomes quite a cult figure there.  Apparently the simple expedient of wearing clothes renders her more or less indistinguishable from a human (and there is, sad to say, a bit of 1930s racism in this section, when various gents try to guess her country of origin.  For the most part, they settle on Spain – but because of her spirit, rather than her appearance.)

“Well, I like her,” said a simple fellow, “because she’s a little woman.  A bouncing little woman.  I like them like that.  My first wife was not.  I was deliriously happy with my first wife.  With my second – not altogether so.  I like a bouncing little woman.” 

“Well, gentlemen” said the senior member of the company, who ignored the last remark as being the probably carnal utterance of one whose work was merely the compiling of a cyclist’s encyclopaedia.  “Well, gentlemen, we had better make a move if we’re to catch a last glimpse of her, for like all that’s best in life, she comes late and departs early, Heaven knows where.”
I always find it impossible not to love a bibliophile in a novel – and Emily’s love of the written word is a joy.  Indeed, she is a joy altogether.  As Osbert Sitwell writes somewhere, she is in many ways the least animalistic of all the characters.  She is certainly more sophisticated, responsible, moral, and caring than Amy – although things do take rather a twist later in the book… and the ending came as quite a surprise…

Collier has picked an eccentric theme for his novel, and sometimes that might have hindered rather than boosted my interest in his writing.  Sure, I wouldn’t have read this novel if it weren’t relevant for my thesis – but I can’t help wondering how his talent for characterisation and writing would fare in a more quotidian novel.   The only other thing I’ve read by him (and this will serve as my post to link to from A Century of Books, as I don’t think I’m going to blog about it fully) is Green Thoughts (1932), a short book (c.50pp.) where people metamorph into plants – also well-written, but absorbed by the strange.

What I liked most about his writing were the incidental similes he used, and they crop up a lot.  Here’s one:

Fate, whose initial gifts to lovers are supplied as generously as those free meals an angler offers to the fish[…]
And there are plenty more to look out for!  He’s also pretty witty, adept at turning a sentence in a semi-Wildean way:

The men were the sort who have given up art for marriage, but, as if nature was scheming to restore the balance, many of their women appeared likely to give up marriage for art.
Collier really is quite an impressive prose stylist, finding that middle ground between modernist experimental and simple storytelling.  There are loads of literary references throughout, from Virginia Woolf to George Moore: Collier clearly respects his audience’s intelligence.  I don’t really know what else he wrote, but I think this might be a case where the novelty of his topic overshadows the talent Collier simply has as a novelist.  I admired His Monkey Wife, and I’d be intrigued to read something else… does anybody know anything else about John Collier and his work?

13 thoughts on “His Monkey Wife – John Collier

  • July 19, 2012 at 11:44 pm

    The easiest distinction: monkeys have tails, apes do not. Chimps are thus apes. :)

  • July 20, 2012 at 2:43 am

    I know I'd heard about this before (probably in one of Nancy Pearl's books or articles) but never in so much detail and I had written it off completely. Now, I'm not so sure. It sounds rather charming and certainly unique. But can I overcome my phobia of chimps, etc (I am equally confused by the distinctions) to embrace Emily? Her bibliophile leanings are certainly a good start.

    • July 27, 2012 at 4:59 pm

      Depends how phobic you are! I actually kept forgetting she was a chimp; Collier certainly doesn't dwell on that too much.

  • July 20, 2012 at 5:44 am

    My childhood differentiation between chimps and monkeys: 'chimps drink tea, monkeys swing by their tails'. Oh dear!
    This sounds a remarkable book – maybe a good follow-on from STW's 'Mr Fortune's Maggot' in terms of taking one away from the conventional?

  • July 20, 2012 at 6:50 am

    Hello, Simon. John Collier wrote a number of macabre and semi-supernatural short stories; the one I'd recommend is called 'Evening Primrose'.

  • July 20, 2012 at 5:33 pm

    This sounds really intriguing. I don't think I've heard of Collier at all, but I'd like to read this.

    • July 27, 2012 at 5:00 pm

      lots of cheap secondhand copies available, although none of them very attractive. Perhaps he deserves a prettier reprint?

  • May 26, 2013 at 3:57 pm

    I loved this book, Simon. I'm so glad you decided to review it. I read it a few years ago upon the recommendation of Nancy Pearl whose Book Lust books often serve as my reading guide through life.

    Like Nancy, I love the ending which leads to all sorts of imaginative complications – at least it did in my mind. :)

    I completely agree with your point that Emily is the most 'human' of the cast of characters.

    Fatigay was the most oblivious (and unintentionally endearing) of men and occasionally those sorts inspire intense devotion in the female heart. Charming Emily would yet make a man of him if anyone could.


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