Book review: Appius and Virginia

About the book...

Virginia Hutton resides in a London club for single women, living a tedious life which never changes from year to year. She decides to take on a bizarre experiment and buys a young orangutan and names him Appius.

She takes him to a cottage and spends years in isolation trying to raise and educate him as if he were a human child. Virginia tries to teach the ape how to eat, sleep, read and speak like a human, all the time keeping the project and Appius hidden from the world. Over eight years, her stern teaching methods begin to bear fruit, but do Virginia and Appius really have the deep mutual understanding she craves?

Appius and Virginia was first published by Martin Secker in 1932 and is now republished by Abandoned Bookshop, the imprint which aims to uncover the best books that have been forgotten or lost sight of. G.E. Trevelyan is the epitome of a ‘forgotten’ author.

She was born Gertrude Eileen Trevelyan in 1903 into a family of means. When she was an undergraduate at Lady Margaret Hall at the University of Oxford, she was the first woman to be awarded the Newdigate Prize for poetry. She then moved to London, where she quietly began a literary career. Appius and Virginia was her first novel, and its unusual subject matter piqued reviewers’ interest.

Leonora Eyles wrote in the TLS on the book’s first publication: “There are times when it is painful to go on reading, but impossible to shirk it.” It still has power today, with Brad Bigelow of Neglected Books pointing out that Virginia’s need to validate her existence by connecting with an ape means Appius and Virginia “may be one of the most powerful stories about loneliness ever written”. Trevelyan wrote another seven novels before her flat was bombed in the London Blitz, and she died of her injuries in 1941.

My thoughts…

I was intrigued by Appius and Virginia as soon as I read about it and I am very grateful to the publisher for gifting me a digital copy of the book. Could a woman raise an orangutan as if he were a human child? I was compelled by this premise.

At first, I found the novel hard to get into. I was fascinated by both Appius and Virginia but I didn’t feel myself warming to either of them. The switch of point of view was at times confusing and didn’t make for a fluid reading experience.

I persevered until something clicked. The more I read, the more I was taken by the completely different worlds that Appius and Virginia end up living in, despite her best efforts, and the different interpretations of the same events. Absolutely fascinating.

I won’t give any spoilers but the ending had me gasp in horror and almost chuckle in amusement at the same time. It is so weird, wrong and ironic… it is plain perfection.

I would be interested in reading more of the author’s literary output and I would definitely recommend Appius and Virginia to readers who are interested in human nature and in something a little different.

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