Everything about this book is a horror story. The life story of the author, G. E. Trevelyan, could be on warning labels about not only how easy it can be for talent to be forgotten, but also how terrorism steals more than people’s lives. Part of the reason for Trevelyan’s obscurity is that her flat took a direct hit during the Blitz and she died of her injuries several weeks later. Afterwards her eight novels went out of print; Appius and Virginia has been brought back by a publisher literally called Abandoned Bookshop. As if that wasn’t enough, the plot of Appius and Virginia is horrible, whether it’s taken literally – a wealthy young Englishwoman retires to a remote country house to raise an orangutan as if it was a human child – or metaphorically. It is an emotionally tough read whether you’re approaching it now or in the aftertimes, but its subtle complexity makes clear we are back in the presence of a significant talent.
The plot is only this: Virginia has been disappointed enough by life that she devotes herself, like Dr Frankenstein or Geppetto, to teaching a wild creature of her own creation how to be a real boy. And the work she puts in over a decade is nothing short of awesome: Appius can communicate and even read well enough to fake his way through the school lessons Virginia insists on teaching him. The realities of parenthood are rather elided, with infancy skipped altogether, which is one of the book’s flaws: the routines of each day are breakfast-lessons-playtime-bath-bed, with the lesser bodily functions not even mentioned. Anyone who has spent two minutes in a zoo’s monkey house can appreciate the oversight, but anyone who has dealt with even a single dirty nappy will laugh hollowly at its ferociously tidy picture of parental responsibilities.
“A tiny rivulet of pride was trickling down from the top of his head, making his spine tingle. For the first time in his life he had a sense of achievement, of self-consciousness. He, Appius, had piled the bricks and made them be columns when they had been nothing but square lumps scattered over the floor. He would do it again. He knocked over the bricks and began to build fresh piles.
Virginia was delighted.
‘Splendid, darling. Look how clever Appius is. Three bricks all by himself.’“
Right from the start, Trevelyan switches neatly between three points of view: Virginia’s, an omniscient narrator’s, and most astonishingly, Appius’. Approximately half of the book is told from Appius’ point of view, with his limited understanding, but his thought processes clearly spelled out. It’s shocking the first time it happens, but then flows cleanly and easily thereafter. As an act of authorial empathy it’s rarely been surpassed; as a gentle depiction of horror it’s nearly unbeatable. All the more so because we spend less time inside Virginia’s head. For someone devoting their life to such a supposedly scientific project, Virginia is working from her own neediness and the memories of her own childhood. She displays unshakable righteousness about her choices, which involve teaching Appius the standard school curriculum, including memorising the names of the English kings. The question this raises is: did Trevelyan choose to ignore the nuances and struggles of life with a small life for which you have total responsibility, or was she unaware?
Her life story as laid out in Brad Bigelow’s introduction implies that probably she didn’t know. Gertrude Eileen was the only child of wealthy elderly parents, cosseted at home until she went to Oxford. There she was the first woman to win the Newdigate Prize in 1927, which garnered her international attention. Upon graduating she lived in friendless London obscurity until 1932, when she took a small flat in Notting Hill. There she wrote a novel a year, the only known record of her life being her book reviews, until her untimely death in 1941.
Appius and Virginia was the first of these, and in that life context it begs examining further as a metaphor. In literature, the history of lone characters developing inappropriate relationships with animals goes back to Leda and the swan. More recently we have Jaroslav Kalfař’s Spaceman of Bohemia, about a Czech astronaut’s hallucinatory relationship with a spider from Mars (soon to be a movie starring Adam Sandler), while Marian Engel’s Bear, reissued by Daunt Press later this year, is about a Canadian librarian alone in the woods with a shocking sexual companion. But while the outside world is at a distance in both those works, its pressures exist and the heroes are vigilantly aware of them. Through the whole of Appius and Virginia, there are but two interactions with the outside world. One afternoon, a group of village children spot Appius in the garden, and their shrieking reaction sends Appius into a downward spiral. The next day a constable comes to investigate.
“The man was shuffling with his notes again, stopping to push back his helmet and wipe his face. It was very red and hot and round, like a red, shiny egg. She looked at him with distaste, noticing how his neck bulged over his uniform collar. The collar was greasy at the edge.
‘At ten-thirty on the mornin’…’
Would he never go?
‘I have told you that I have no pets whatever. It is no concern of mine what tales the village children may bring to the station. I have frequently had cause to complain of the noise they make under the windows and the damage they do to the wall. I should be glad if the police could do something to remedy this. As for pets, I have told you I have none. I live here with my adopted son, and we are quite alone.’“
After the policeman disappears, so does the outside world, and if we are meant to take the book literally, this is unlikely. A sighting of a monkey in a village garden followed by a doorstep police investigation would not, in the real world, buy Virginia several more years’ undisturbed living. But for Trevelyan’s purposes, Virginia and Appius’ life is meant to be utopian: they are living off an inheritance received on the death of Virginia’s parents. She frequently debates with herself the need to hire a ‘daily,’ but decides the ruination of her hands is a price worth paying to keep Appius secret from prying eyes; both Virginia and Trevelyan have a strongly expressed casual contempt for the working class. Books and toys are ordered from fine shops in London but the postman is invisible. How food arrives in the house is also never discussed. While Virginia sometimes wonders about her friends ‘from the club,’ she resents their early, written attempts to break her privacy, ignores their letters, and embraces her social isolation.
Appius calls Virginia mama and she does think of him as her child, but the rather obvious idea that she could have just had a baby (the obvious reason why there are so few female ‘mad scientists’ in art) doesn’t seem to have occurred to her. Occasionally over the years she writes up notes to herself, as if this was a scientific experiment, but she is leaning on half-hearted ideas from school and a few magazine articles. And yet she expects, someday, that the wider world will be amazed at her hard work and sacrifice, when they accept the adult Appius into higher education with open arms.
But in the current, so-called unprecedented times, it’s especially easy to understand how someone could get into such a state that they choose to devote themselves to a strange, all-consuming project that requires you to stay home.
All of this is, speaking bluntly and unkindly, delusional. But in the current, so-called unprecedented times, it’s especially easy to understand how someone could get into such a state that they choose to devote themselves to a strange, all-consuming project that requires you to stay home. As a cautionary tale for the current moment, there could hardly be a better work.
But it’s a mistake to assess Appius and Virginia as a how-to guide on any level. What it is more directly about is life as an artist, how a project is nurtured and shaped over time, and how, the moment it is in the world, no matter how small that world is, the creation takes on a life of its own. As Virginia learns from the howls of the village children, she cannot possibly control how the world sees Appius. What she was totally unprepared for was the reality of Appius seeing himself and the concomitant limitations of how he experiences the world.
“Then there was no more. He had got through the lesson. He had done what mama told him. Now he could be quiet again and try to think what it was that had made his head swell inside as if it were going to burst, so that he had had to open his mouth to let it out, and it had come out with a huge noise which had frightened him when the swelling had stopped and he could hear it. He couldn’t remember how it had begun. There had been a noise, and things waving about, and then redness everywhere and his head swelling and bursting. He muttered to himself, satisfying sounds which meant nothing but made him feel less limp and aching all over.
‘Appius. Go on.’
That was mama, speaking sharply to him. She was cross. What did she want?
‘Appius, read. Go on.’”
By the constant contrasting of Virginia’s actions with Appius’ thoughts, we are able to appreciate every nuance of the abyss between the two of them. Appius resents and fears Virginia’s demands, although he usually obeys, and when he doesn’t Virginia either ignores it, or attempts to paper over the situation as if he was a human child. But of course he isn’t. He can copy her reactions, and do as he is told, and since we are inside of both their minds we can fully appreciate his limits and frustrations. But Virginia’s need is so great that she pretends those limits don’t matter and that his frustrations don’t exist. It’s an understandable and human failure, but as the abyss between them widens, the pressure mounts.
As a metaphor for how the world reacts to a new piece of art it could hardly be better. Trevelyan’s prizewinning experience at Oxford was newsworthy only because of her gender and the experience of attempting to build a career off the back of it clearly stung. So someone unappreciated decides to teach everyone the dangers of underestimating her by locking herself away in devotion to a project that will shock the world once it’s completed. So did Trevelyan, as does Virginia. But the project exists in the world outside of the control of its creator, and the world probably won’t understand. You only have to look at Lana del Rey’s Instagram to understand the difficulty of allowing a work to speak for itself and of separating criticism of the art from the artist. It might be your story, and you might be able to control how the story is told, but you cannot, ever, control how the story is received, or how the story changes with the telling.
If the world understands you the way you wish them to, it’s happiness and success; if they don’t, it’s horror. Appius and Virginia is about the horror. Gracefully expressed, never fully understood by its characters horror, but blood-curdling horror all the same. It takes a major talent to tell such a nuanced, awful story without flinching, and the welcome rediscovery of G. E. Trevelyan’s success has a lot to teach us, on multiple levels.
G.E. Trevelyan wrote eight groundbreaking novels between 1932 and 1941 but her writing career was tragically cut short when her flat was hit by a German bomb during the Blitz. She died shortly afterwards and her books have subsequently been largely forgotten.
Sarah Manvel is the author of the comic novelette YOU RUIN IT WHEN YOU TALK (Open Pen, 2020), and is looking for an agent for her three completed full-length novels. In her spare time, she is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, primarily for criticsnotebook.com. She lives in London, without a pet, and tweets as @typewritersarah.