Co-written with @DrDouglasSmall
The Victorians were more than a little bit obsessed with apes. And the obvious answer to this peculiar cultural fascination is probably the right one: Darwin.
The Origin of the Species was published in 1859 and catalysed a fascination with man’s relationship to the ape which spanned biological and scientific thinking, religious faith, racial and imperial discourses, psychology, and pretty much altered forever the way humanity thought about itself and its own place in the world.
And Darwin was not alone in popularising the image of the almost mythical African creature in the 1850s and 60s. The American zoologist and anthropologist Paul Du Chaillu had travelled to Africa in 1855 to try to confirm the existence of the gorilla. He brought back skeletons and skins and illustrations showing a creature which appeared to walk upright and stand as tall as a full-grown man.
The ape became an overnight cultural phenomenon and crops up in literary texts with increasing regularity in the second half of the nineteenth century. Some particularly noteworthy apes include:
- Sheridan le Fanu, ‘Green Tea’ (1872).
I’ve written about this story before in my ‘10 Supernatural Tales’ post, but Le Fanu’s tale features a doctor who drinks too much green tea and begins to hallucinate one creepy-ass monkey who insists on lurking around and watching him while he works. The plot is part supernatural and part psychological horror, hinting at Victorian anxieties that, in a post-Darwinian world, humanity is being haunted by its earlier self in the form of the monkey.
- Matthew Phipps Shiel, ‘The Pale Ape’ (1911).
If you’ve ever thought to yourself: “Wow, this Jane Eyre thing is a solid 9/10, but what would really put the cherry on top would be the constant haunting presence of a spectral, albino chimpanzee,” then M. P. Shiel is the man for you. You strange person. Shiel was responsible for some gloriously deranged fin-de-siècle decadent stories, including ‘Vaila’ (1896), and The Purple Cloud (1901). ‘The Pale Ape’ describes the experiences of a governess in a remote country house, where the master keeps three apes as pets, but where there may also be the ghost of another ‘Pale Ape’ which haunts the inhabitants.
- Arthur Conan Doyle, The Lost World (1912).
Conan Doyle’s first Professor Challenger novel not only features a surviving population of dinosaurs hiding out on a vast plateau in the Amazonian basin, but also manages to pack in a war for supremacy between a community of anatomically modern humans (called the Accala) and a tribe of primitive ‘ape-men.’ With the help of the Victorian explorers the Accala finally triumph over their enemies (shot guns, it turns out, are remarkably helpful at speeding natural selection along), a victory which reproduces then-current ideas about the ascendency of ancient man over older, pre-human species like Neanderthals. Come of the dinosaurs, stay for the evolutionary theory.
- Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The Adventure of The Creeping Man’ (1923).
Howard K. Elcock, Illustration for ‘The Adventure of the Creeping Man,’ The Strand Magazine, March 1923.
One of the later Sherlock Holmes stories (Doyle died just seven years after its publication), the mystery here revolves around the strange behaviour of an elderly professor and the curious medicine he has started taking. One of the only Holmes tales to stray out of straightforward crime writing and into science fiction, ‘The Creeping Man’ bears obvious traces of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ in its critique of rejuvenation therapies, and the persistence of lust into old age.
The literary ape became such a legendary and spectacular beast that the real thing, when it appeared in Europe, was something of an anti-climax. When in 1877 Mr. Pongo the gorilla was brought to Berlin – “the only live gorilla…brought to Europe” (The Leisure Hour, Oct. 27th 1877, p.686) – it seems he was a somewhat reluctant and lacklustre celebrity. “A full-grown gorilla in the wild state may be an imposing object,” noted one reporter, “but this is a poor, dull-looking creature, and less in stature, as well as intelligence, than many chimpanzees, ourang-outangs, and other Simian individuals whom we have seen in former exhibitions.
However, that after the initial disappointment that the gorilla did not measure up to the fantastical apes of the Victorian cultural imagination, or “the excitement caused by M. de Chaillu’s introduction off the gorilla to public notice” several decades earlier, Mr. Pongo and the reporter in question soon struck up an unlikely friendship:
“I have had several interviews with Pongo … and at every visit I am more impressed with the interest of this remarkable animal. Hitherto gorillas have only been known by badly preserved skins, specimens in spirits, or skeletons more or less out of repair…
Pongo sits nearly always on the floor, with his legs tucked under him, exactly as does a tailor … He cannot smile, but he grins like a dog. He will snatch and pull away anything put near him. He took a pocket-handkerchief from a lady’s pocket, put it round his neck, and afterwards wiped his nose with it.” (p.686)
I can’t finish this post without a special mention for my favourite, and one of the rare pre-Darwinian – apes in Victorian fiction:
Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841)
If you’ve not read Poe’s short story, consider yourself spoiler-warned. This story is generally accepted as one of the first, if not the first, modern detective story. Poe’s detective Dupin has been called to the scene of a brutal murder of a mother and daughter in the Rue Morgue. The murders took place in a locked room on the fourth floor. The windows are bolted shut. The mother has had her throat cut and the daughter has been strangled and stuffed up the chimney. No one was seen or heard entering the apartment. Gruesome stuff. And Dupin duly sets to work unravelling the mystery.
And who is the murderer in this first ground-breaking test of the detective fiction format? – fortify yourselves, people – None other than an orangutan, escaped from the custody of a sailor recently returned from Borneo. The wily ape, having grabbed a straight razor on his way out the door, escaped from his captor and made his way up to the cosy-looking apartment on the fourth floor where, no-doubt unsettled by the furore his presence provoked, got a little bit, well, slashy. It’s bizarre, but it works, and the ape of Poe’s story makes for an interesting comparison with the later, post-Darwinian apes.
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