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jane: the woman who loved tarzan


Tarzan, Jane, and books about them both

I’ve just finished Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan by Robin Maxwell–her version of the Tarzan story, as told from Jane’s point of view. I didn’t fall in quite the same level of mad passionate love with it as I did The Hum and the Shiver, but nonetheless, I enjoyed the hell out of it. And as I’d planned to do when I finished it, I promptly then read the original Tarzan novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes, since I’d never actually read a word of any of the original novels before.

Very interesting, comparing the two implementations of the story. The biggest differences with Maxwell’s version are of course with Jane herself–in Maxwell’s story, Jane is a much more active character. She’s a budding young scientist, not just a beautiful girl who’s there for Tarzan to love. The circumstance that get her and her father to Africa are much different, and once she’s there, she becomes the means through which Tarzan learns to communicate, and through which he learns about his own background. I definitely appreciated Jane being a woman of science, and the initial setup of Jane having to fight for a place in her father’s anatomy classes is fun. It’s clear that he’s overjoyed to have a daughter who follows in his footsteps, and he gets shit for working to get her admitted into the course, as well as for opting to take her to Africa in general–as you would expect for the time frame of the story.

Maxwell also bumped up the role of Tarzan’s mother, Lady Alice, in his background. In the original story she’s much more fragile, and in fact quietly snaps after she gives birth to him, believing herself back in England during the last year of her life. In Maxwell’s version, she’s a significantly sturdier character, actively working with her husband on their survival, which I appreciated as well.

And Maxwell has the story of how Kerchak’s tribe kills Tarzan’s parents be a much bigger deal. Tarzan-the-boy is a little older in her version when it happens, old enough to be traumatized by what he witnesses, and to block it out of his memory. But that also means that he’s old enough to retain dim memory of learning to talk from his parents, and that in turn plays into how Jane teaches him English later. And this also means that Kerchak as a character is a much bigger deal as well. Since Maxwell’s version of the story makes it clear that Kerchak and Kala’s species is sapient and a missing link between ape and human, they too are more active characters, and taking Kerchak down is a much more significant part of the story. Maxwell gives you actual dialogue for the Mangani, which is fun not only in contributing to the overall idea that yes, these are creatures with a language, but also to presenting the idea that Tarzan himself can handle the idea of words. He’s just not been introduced to English yet.

Overall I liked Maxwell’s version of that part of it all better–but one thing I did note with interest in the original is how Tarzan teaches himself to read from the books left behind in his parents’ house. So when the other main characters finally find him, he can leave them notes in English–but he can’t actually speak English, because he has no conception of how to vocalize the words he’s picked up out of the books. This makes for notable confusion on the part of the others, especially Jane, since they don’t initially realize that the strange jungle man who helps them is the same “Tarzan of the Apes” who keeps leaving them notes. It also amused me deeply that Burroughs had Tarzan learning to talk later thanks to a Frenchman, D’Arnot–which means of course that Tarzan’s first spoken language is French.

(D’Arnot appears in Maxwell’s story too, but in a much different capacity since Jane takes over the role of teaching Tarzan to communicate as well as civilized behavior in general. Maxwell’s D’Arnot is a more tragic figure.)

The other big thing that made me giggle about Burroughs’ story was how chock full of hammering you over the head with Tarzan’s awesomeness–and beauty!–it was. Jane swooning at his handsomeness was to be expected, but at least two of the male characters noted in their POVs his ‘handsome’ face, too. Even his own (unknown to anyone at the time, of course, but) cousin. SLASH GOGGLES ENGAGED!

I couldn’t read the Burroughs story without noting the problematic treatment of the native tribe that appears in it, as well as Tarzan’s behavior towards same. On the other hand, Maxwell swung a little bit too far in the opposite direction, with infodumps about how Jane was of course against the rampant colonialism that Britain and Europe were unleashing on the continent. That is of course much more appropriate for modern sensibilities, though I’d have appreciated Jane coming to those conclusions on camera, rather than just being told that she feels that way. The book did a great job of challenging her about what to do about studying the Mangani, so it would have been nice to see her similarly challenged about her perceptions of what was going on in Africa in general, especially since that plays a significant part of the entire other half of the plot. Much ado is made about Belgium’s atrocities in the Congo in particular, and that plays heavily into why Jane and her father wind up in Africa.

All in all, quite enjoyable to read them back to back. And for bonus amusement in the category Hysterical If You Know People Involved With Quebecois Music, I had to giggle and giggle at one particular exchange in Maxwell’s story, when Jane and Tarzan are continuing to learn to talk to each other:

Lost in pleasant memory now, Tarzan’s face grew animated. “Tarzan ee Jai zu, zu-vo.” He signed that the two little ones had grown big and strong. Now he was smiling broadly. “Tarzan ee Jai olo.”

I shook my head. “Olo?”

Tarzan grabbed me and made as if to wrestle…

This reads very, VERY differently if you’re accustomed to seeing the word “Olo” as the nickname for your favorite Quebecois fiddle player! Important translation note: do not confuse the Mangani verb with the French nickname. Unless you’re planning on wrestling a fiddle player!