July 19, 2024

Jane, by Robin Maxwell

Jane by Robin Maxwell
Jane by Robin Maxwell

When I grabbed this book on the basis of the front cover alone, I secretly hoped it would be a retelling of the classic Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan story, but through Jane’s eyes. I started reading the Tarzan series in junior high and revisit my favorites every few years, managing each time to overlook the saturation of Victorian-era racist, sexist, imperialistic, and ethnic stereotypes. I admit I felt a pang of disappointment when I realized that Maxwell had taken the “REAL-story-behind-the-Tarzan-legend” approach, but my pangs lasted only a moment; since I’d never had much affection for ERB’s beautiful, well-bred, but perpetually imperiled heroine, I couldn’t wait to meet the “real” Jane.

And really, to tell the story from Jane’s point of view, Maxwell needs to make some significant changes in order to HAVE a story. In ERB’s Tarzan of the Apes, Jane’s great love for Tarzan develops based on one day ensconced in a little bower of bliss deep within the African jungle, then a subsequent rescue from a fire in the wilds of northern Wisconsin (though her affection is not really secured until her third rescue in the sequel, Return of Tarzan). Prof. Archimedes Q. Porter and Jane need a better motivation to get them into the depths of the jungle than a treasure hunt followed by mutiny/abandonment, the same problem that delivered the Claytons to the West African coast. A couple of the things I admit I missed from the originals: Tarzan’s various battles with the bull apes get conflated here into a single vendetta against Kerchak, who turns into a real villain (and the extra sufferings that Maxwell inflicts on her Claytons are at once more vile and less palatable than in the original). There is a lot less of Tarzan battling lions with just his grass rope and a knife. His persecution of the village of Mbonga, which takes up a lot of his energy in the first book, gets completely elided, and Maxwell’s version skips ahead to the less “brutish” Waziri of ERB’s sequel.

I confess the real loss, for me, was that Maxwell ditches the absent-minded professor of the Tarzan books, making Archie Porter an ambitious, perceptive, well-educated man who would never walk around in a silk hat, with his hands clasped beneath the tails of his frock coat, uttering “most remarkable!” as he wanders off into the jungle and into the jaws of almost-certain death. We also lose the faithful secretary, Mr. Samuel T. Philander, and the servant Esmeralda (who, despite being an awful stereotype of the antebellum African-American slave, is one of my favorite ERB characters ever, with her persistent fainting and her vocabulary of “rhinopotamouses” and “hipponocerouses”). And, as with most adaptations of the Tarzan story, we must bid farewell as if he never existed to Mr. William Cecil Clayton, the current Lord Greystoke, who redactors always seem to think is simply in the way rather than being a real rival. Poor Cecil.

But, some of the more brilliant changes Maxwell makes: rather than being a Southern belle from Maryland, this Jane is half-English and studying at Cambridge, aspiring to be a paleoanthropologist at a time when women weren’t even allowed to get a degree. She is a thoroughly liberated heroine in other ways, holding attitudes that in this day and age we can take for granted but in 1912 caused shock and tittering. Jane loves science, horse-backing riding, Africa, and human anatomy; she detests class privilege, sexism, racism, animal cruelty, religious bigotry, European imperialism, and corsets. ERB’s Jane had a triad of suitors vying for her hand; Maxwell’s Jane would rather not have anything to do with the “suitable” gents her mother keeps trying to throw in her path. A firm believer in Darwin’s theories and a big fan of Mary Kingsley, Jane jumps at the chance to accompany her father to Africa to look for an artifact that might make modern readers snicker but is actually entirely believable for 1912: they want to find evidence of Darwin’s so-called “missing link.”

The story opens with Jane sitting down to reveal her life story to no other than Edgar himself; more on this later. Next, to remind us that this is after all the Tarzan story, Jane is catapulted to a tree-top “nest” in darkest Africa, where the wild ape-man/forest god tends to the wounds she sustained when she was attacked by a leopard. But after that, the story travels backward to unfold Jane in her life in England, dissecting cadavers, riding horses, arguing with her mother, and attending exciting (to her and I; perhaps not to all readers) scientific lectures with real-life luminaries of the anthropological field. Jane’s eventual journey to Africa unfolds with layered and intricate detail, fully conveying not just a real sense of the place but her growing fascination with it.

Maxwell’s research on the various scientific fields as they stood circa early-20th-century is fine indeed (I actually learned something about anatomy from this book), but her research on Africa–something we know ERB never bothered to do–is superb. She brings Libreville and its various inhabitants to life, showing the complexity of a colonial town and the tentative mixing of European and native inhabitants. And she doesn’t shy away from exposing the darker side of European influence, from Leopold’s massive genocide in the Congo and the bigotry of some early Christian missionaries to the horrors of ivory-harvesting and the persistent tensions among colonizer and colonized. For example, Paul D’Arnot, who in the original books is a staunchly honorable officer and a gentleman and Tarzan’s bosom friend, here is an outcast and a desperate man facing persecution from all sides because he took a native wife. The most present threat, for Jane and her story, is the rapacious greed of men who want to exploit Africa for its riches, gold and ivory, and see its inhabitants as no better than beasts standing between them and their treasure. This, we come to see, is the attitude of the leader, this time around, of the Porter expedition: Ral Conrath, who charms and attracts them all back in England with his wit and his fossil, but who falls in our estimation first when he brings a Gatling gun on board the ship and second when he accosts Jane at the ship’s rail.

I’ll try to leave the rest for you, dear reader, to discover. Only I have to say, once we finally–oh, finally!–get to the meeting with Tarzan, Maxwell’s world blends with the fantastic world created by ERB and Jane at last gets to live out the fantasy I myself harbored, when reading the Tarzan books for the first time, of flying through treetops, swimming in pristine waterfall pools, making friends with Tantor and other animals, sitting down to read all the books the Claytons left in their cabin, joining the Waziri in one of their wild ceremonies, and feasting on delicious jungle flora and fauna with my handsome and manly companion, who manages to neutralize every threatening beast and other jungle danger. It’s all great fun. Maxwell’s Tarzan is more vulnerable, sensitive, and childlike than ERB would recognize, showing the changes in perceptions of masculinity that 100 years have wrought. ERB’s Tarzan shaved and barbered himself, was proficient with a bow and arrow, spent a brief stint as chief of the Waziri, and taught himself to read from the books he found in the cabin by the sea; except for the chief-of-the-Waziri part, this Jane teaches her Tarzan all of these things. She also gets lithe and muscular from all the tree-hopping and vine-swinging.

Still, this Jane doesn’t abandon her career just because she met a forest god and fell in love. One more compelling change introduced by Maxwell is to update ERB’s “great anthropoid apes” (which might have been a species extinct by his time of writing, or might have never even existed) to the kind of evolutionary anomaly that Jane is looking for, her real “missing link.” Then she adds a sister for Tarzan, Jai, to help Jane with her research. Jane gets her revenge on the man who left her to the leopard attack, in true heroine fashion, and by the last rousing adventure–where we have progressed not just to ERB’s Africa at its most fantastic but start to merge with H. Rider Haggard, Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody, and Indiana Jones territory–we get a creation that at once explains an obscure reference in Herodotus, an obsession of Wm. Flinders Petrie, and the source for the Waziri gold, with allusions to (for the diehard ERB fans among us) the lost city of Opar.

The fun here is downright fabulous, and the descent into true pulpiness is perhaps the finest of the subtle send-ups to ERB that I imagined Maxwell sprinkling throughout her novel. (Others: her Samantha Porter, if I read correctly, was a Rutherford, the family that birthed Alice Clayton; Ral Conrath might be a version of Robert Canler, the original Jane’s villainous betrothed; and the “lost civilization” that the original Prof. Porter said he was out to find really does show up here.) The only thing that, for me, could have made the adventure complete was for Jane to find that set of tiny fingerprints in the margin of John Clayton’s diary, the ones that prove Tarzan the real Lord Greystoke. (But this Jane would probably prefer not to be titled nobility, anyway.)

The weakest part of this thoroughly delightful book is the frame story. It’s hard to believe, even for the most generous of readers, that Jane is telling the most intimate details of her life to a man she knows nothing about other than that he is a hack writer and believes she has discovered something scientifically significant. While the frame story is one ERB used himself to introduce the Tarzan legend, and here allows for a gratifying surprise at the very end, to suggest that ERB went off and wrote his much-beloved, oft-adapted story after hearing Jane’s narrative doesn’t really do justice to either his Tarzan or Maxwell’s Jane. ERB was clearly interested in the ironies and complexities offered by the situation of a man raised as truly savage having to adapt to “civilized customs” and life, and his Tarzan, in Jekyll-and-Hyde fashion, is intensely torn about where he really belongs and who his “kind” really are. If Maxwell’s is the “real” story that he was working from, then his valiant, stoic, ever-resourceful hero turns out, sadly, to have been largely his own invention, and his changes to Jane’s character are a form of assassination, reducing her to little more than “nice.” If there could have been another way that Jane’s “real’ story surfaced–perhaps yet another one of those old yellowed diaries, or shipboard yarns that ERB relied on–this book would have been, for me, perfect. But it’s a fine read altogether, and Ms. Maxwell has my respect.

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