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Monday, December 24, 2012

Tarzan's Jane For 21st Century Readers

When I read Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs as a pre-teen, I remember detesting Jane. For me, Jane was the lure that brought Tarzan back to "civilization".  I was fascinated by Tarzan's relationship with the apes and I wanted him to stay in Africa.  Yet what if Jane wanted to establish a relationship with apes? There is a Jane who did this in real life. Primatologist Jane Goodall is one of my heroines.  For more information about Jane Goodall, go to the Jane Goodall Institute Website . I was delighted to see that Goodall graciously provided a blurb for Robin Maxwell's  new novel, Jane.  I realized then that Maxwell's version of Jane must be radically different.   Jane was authorized by the Edgar Rice Burroughs Estate.  It was timed to coincide with Tarzan's 100th anniversary.  For more information about Tarzan's centennial, see The Tarzan Portal and The Official Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. Website.  Here's my take on Robin Maxwell's re-visioning of Edgar Rice Burroughs' character, Jane Porter.

As an adult , the first time I engaged with the Tarzan mythos was when I saw the movie Greystoke in the theatre.  I enjoyed Christopher Lambert's performance as Tarzan in England upsetting Victorian values.  The Jane of that movie may have tried to be supportive, but she was ill-equipped to understand him.  Later I saw a syndicated Tarzan series on television starring Wolf Larson  as a modern environmental activist and protector of the wild.  Jane was an ecologist. (See the Wikipedia article on that series at Modern Tarzan series.) That Jane represented me.  I could imagine that I was on the frontline against the poachers and corporate destroyers of Africa along with Tarzan.

I knew that Tarzan had been a heroic fantasy figure for Edgar Rice Burroughs, and I felt that women deserved their own heroic fantasy figure in Jane.  Yet the Wolf Larson  television series displaced Tarzan in time.  He obviously wasn't the character that Burroughs had written about.  He couldn't  be the 19th century child of English nobility who was brought up by apes that had so fascinated me when I was young.  Yet could there be a Victorian era Jane Porter that could stand by his side in Africa?

I had high hopes for Robin Maxwell's  Jane.  I had loved her Signora Da Vinci in which she imagined Leonardo Da Vinci's  mother as a very extraordinary woman.  Her Jane Porter is also very far from ordinary. She is a medical student in an era where women weren't accepted in the medical profession, and she dared to support Charles Darwin's controversial ideas about evolution.

I felt that this novel's Jane is a bridge between Victorian England and Tarzan's jungle.  She understands both perspectives and can mediate between them.  She and Tarzan are equals.  They switch teacher and student roles.  Jane wants to be as much at home with apes as Tarzan.  So this isn't just a romance.  Jane wants to become like Tarzan, and is eager to be taught by him.   She is also a woman who is strong enough to follow his example.

I am sure that there are readers who will consider Maxwell's Jane Porter unrealistic or historically inaccurate.  Let me assure these readers that there were tough women in the Victorian period who became explorers in areas of the world that European men considered daunting. See in particular the article about African explorer  Mary Kingsley on Wikipedia . So there is a historical basis for Maxwell's version of Jane.  I admit that I also prefer this Jane.  I feel that she speaks to women in the 21st century like me who want to be Jane and walk in her footsteps.





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