The writing of Friend Monkey
In 1966, when Pamela L. Travers was just starting to write the story of Friend Monkey, some friends asked her to look after a family of three Tibetans visiting London. The visitors stayed in her writing studio for a few weeks and after they left, her manuscript of two-hundred pages had mysteriously vanished.
Her biographer, Valerie Lawson, reports that Pamela even “called in two dowsers, who went over the house with two pendulums. They searched everywhere, even in hatboxes and luggage, in the bathroom, the garden, under the sofa. Nothing.” The manuscript was gone. Pamela was dispirited.
However, whoever or whatever wanted to prevent Pamela from writing that book underestimated her zeal. Eventually, she rewrote Friend Monkey and the book was published in 1971.
The book did not attain much success at the time of its publishing, especially in the United States, and today few people know about the story of Friend Monkey. This lack of success crushed Pamela and she wrote to friends:
Here it is not understood except by rare people…I feel that I have written a sort of testament. In England, it is much better understood but the U.S. reception has thrown me into the deeps. That something so clear, so obviously to do with love and loving isn’t seen! So that I have lost a lot of faith in myself. Am I a writer? Do I know anything about the myths? Who am I? And what? Shall I ever write anything else? (This is a common sickness among writers but I am having a bad bout of it and no medicine or reassurance seems to assuage it. I need a whole new set of impressions, I expect.)
The reference in the last sentence in the quote above about the “set of impressions” alludes to the teachings of Pamela’s spiritual teacher Gurdjieff but her allegiance to his work and its influence on her writings will be explored in future posts on this blog.
The story of Friend Monkey
The main characters of the story are Friend Monkey, a little monkey abandoned by its tribe, and Mr. Alfred Linnet, a ship-checking clerk. Mr. Linnet is a powerless family man living with his wife and three young kids in the house of the old and grumpy Uncle Trehunsey. One day, Mr. Linnet discovers in the cargo of one of the ships on dock a little monkey and takes him home instead of giving him to the suspicious Professor McWhirter who presents himself as animal fancier and collector. While in their home, Friend Monkey, quite unintentionally, sets the house of Uncle Trehunsey on fire. Mr. Linnet’s unconventional neighbor, Mrs. Brown-Potter (a former explorer), shelters the family. Meanwhile, Professor McWhirter follows Friend Monkey and tries to snatch him from his adoptive family. Then, one day, Friend Monkey runs out of the house and disrupts the Jubilee Parade of the Queen which becomes the cause of Mr. Linnet’s down fall. The family is left without resources and no one wants to hire disgraced Mr. Linnet. Thus a difficult decision must be made. The family, along with Friend Monkey, Mrs. Brown-Potter, and her adoptive little African boy Stanley, embark on a ship sailing to Umtota with the intention of starting a new life in a new place. In a turn of fortune, the ship never reaches the intended destination. The ship’s crew is employed by Professor McWhirter who is in the business of stealing animals from zoos and freeing them on a deserted island. At the end of the story, Mr. Linnet’s new job is to be the watchman of the island. And as for Friend Monkey, he is greeted by his monkey tribe and treated as their King.
The plot is not particularly engaging and the stories has some slow moments. It also lacks the magic of the Mary Poppins stories because, in my opinion, Pamela L. Travers is at her best when she channels her unconsciosuness. And this book was a more consciously directed writing. The descriptions of the characters and their emotional states sounded a little preachy at times. I can see why the book did not receive the expected praise. It is not Pamela’s best work; although, it was her favorite one.
Nevertheless, there are a lot of interesting hints about Pamela’s inner workings that seem to have escaped everybody’s attention.
First, let’s talk about the character of Miss Brown-Potter.
Valerie Lawson, Pamela L. Travers’s biographer, finds similarities between Mrs. Brown-Potter, Mary Poppins, and Pamela’s Great Aunt Ellie.
And, although it is true that the personality of Mary Poppins reflects to a certain extent that of Aunt Ellie as discussed in a previous post, and that some aspects of Aunt Ellie’s upbringing coincide with the upbringing of Mrs. Brown-Potter, the resemblances stop there. The discrepancies between the temperaments of Mary Poppins and of Mrs. Brown-Potter make this assumption implausible.
Instead, the similarities between Pamela L. Travers and Mrs. Brown Potter are much more striking.
Mrs. Brown-Potter is unconventional just like Pamela L. Travers, she travels to explore the world just like Pamela (although Pamela traveled the world to explore herself), and lives alone with her African adopted son just like Pamela lived alone with her adoptive Irish boy Camillus.
At the same time, there are striking opposites in the characteristics of Pamela L. Travers and Mrs. Brown Potter and these contradictions in character make me believe that Mrs. Brown-Potter plays a double role and thus expresses an ideal Pamela L. Travers was striving to achieve.
Mrs. Brown Potter is calm and content. Pamela was anxious and restless. Mrs. Brown-Potter is loving and compassionate, even to the unlovable Uncle Trehunsey. Mrs. Brown-Potter has no expectations of reciprocation, she just does what needs to be done. Pamela was demanding and self-pitying at times.
Another interesting aspect in Friend Monkey is the relationship between Mrs. Brown-Potter and her adoptive son, Stanley. Stanley is deaf and cannot speak but he and Mrs. Brown-Potter share a deep connection and understanding which lacked in Pamela L. Travers’s relationship with her son Camillus. Pamela L. Travers’s heart must have ached when she wrote:
For twelve years they have lived together in harmony and mutual affection…”
“She and Stanley exchanged glances, and at once, working as one person, they set about getting bowls of soup, gathering up the scattered bundles, lighting lamps, making beds.
The part about little Mrs. Brown-Potter is the most unconscious expression of Pamela’s psyche in the book. Little Mrs. Brown-Potter is the portrait of Mrs. Brown-Potter at the age of ten. The little girl comes momentarily alive and steps down from the frame to commiserate with Friend Monkey.
He wrapped his arms more closely about him, not so much remembering as feeling in his whole body that he had been left alone.
And Miss Brow-Potter at the age of ten, mumpish in her white muslin, stepped down from her portrait frame and came and stood beside him. For a long time or a short time-neither could have measured it – the two of them communed together, motionless as a painted child and a painted monkey.
It is conspicuous that the little girl in the story is framed in time and space at the age of ten, the age at which Pamela’s mother attempted suicide. It is almost as if little Helen Lyndon (Pamela’s real name) was showing a glimpse of herself. I believe both Friend Monkey and little Mrs. Brown-Potter express the emotions of the inner orphan child.