The professor comparison

Readers of the Tarzan stories have a variety of reactions to the characters. Though many diehard fans will deny the claim, critics from several perspectives find instances of caricature and prejudice, often especially in terms of race. For me, one painful caricature has to do with Jane’s father, Professor Archimedes Q. Porter. Let me lay my cards on the table: I am an academic, having taught at the college level for most of two decades. ERB’s portrayal of Professor Porter goes far beyond the fairly common academic focus on minutiae and lack of common sense; ERB’s professor borders on dementia. The character is rounded out only slightly by concern for his daughter when he realizes she has been abducted and probably will not return. His assistant, Samuel T. Philander, is only slightly better.

Professor Porter is much changed in Robin Maxwell’s Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan, though Mr. Philander does not appear. Professor Porter is an American teaching at Cambridge, he is much taken with fast driving, and he has some sort of problem with his heart. (The heart problem provides a major plot development which is never resolved.) Unlike in ERB, his wife is still alive and very much involved in the development of the story; she appears to be part of the British aristocracy, though to the best of my recollection she does not have a title. Mrs. Eddlington-Porter and her daughter both refer to the Professor as ‘Archie.’ He is thoroughly committed to finding Darwin’s Missing Link (nevermind that Darwin never posited such a link) and is convinced that fossil evidence will be found in West Africa. Oddly, he largely disappears from Maxwell’s novel something over halfway through, although her Jane occasionally claims to be concerned that her father has supposedly died. In ERB’s Tarzan of the Apes and in the two novels below, he remains present and active throughout the narrative.

In The Diary of Miss Jane Porter (available at erblist.com/fanfiction), Professor Porter is little changed from ERB’s portrait, except for the dementia. ERB does not specify the Professor’s age, but I put it at seventy, fifty years older than his daughter. The good professor remains rather more deeply absorbed in his academic pursuits than in the world around him. Rather than being on a treasure hunt, he has come to Africa to study the native religions, a purpose more in keeping with the life of an academic. On a side note, I have long wondered why ERB or anyone else would imagine that the academic life would put any put anyone in the upper economic classes. Notable exceptions do, of course, present themselves, but most of the academics I have known are middle class, and their children tend to be bookish nerds rather than wealthy ingenues. My attempt was to make both Professor Porter and his assistant Mr. Philander into believable academics, who are funny at times but are quite willing and able to contribute their talents to the good of the group.

Diana’s Diary (for sale  at www.amazon.com) presents a much changed portrait of the father of the central character. The names are changed, as ERB informs us that he did, so here we meet Professor Marcus Aurelius Howard on a safari with (among others) his daughter Diana and his colleague Professor Edmund Pitt. In this work, I have placed Professor Howard’s age at near fifty. Thus, though he is not by any means athletic, he is in what could be reasonably understood as his prime years. He is a scholar of languages and linguistics and is actually in Africa for the second time, having been recruited for this safari because of having been on another safari to the same area some twenty years before. The previous expedition had been led by the late Professor Jayne Diana Custer, Diana’s mother, who died soon after she and Professor Howard returned to America, leaving him to raise Diana. Though he can become pedantic, he is quite talented in understanding languages and often provides the communicative link between others in the story. Professor Pitt, who has been promoted from being Professor Porter’s assistant in ERB’s version and my earlier one, is more of the pompously arrogant academic, but when the need arises late in the story, he transcends himself to do more than anyone would have expected of him.

It’s unlikely that many readers of ERB are bothered by his portrayal of Professor Porter, but these novels offer three more modern treatments of the character. Each of them is interesting for the fresh ways that readers will be led to consider the characters and the story. In Diana’s Diary, you will meet an academic who is quite talented and knowledgeable in his field of study, quite dedicated to his daughter’s well-being, and quite ready and willing to exercise his subtle humor.

Jane comparison

Dr. Jane Goodall has famously said that she thought she would make a better Jane for Tarzan than would the character ERB created. Presumably, she was referring to Jane Porter as portrayed in the first two novels. My impression of that character has long been that she only screams and faints. There’s no accounting for taste, of course, but that just doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would interest a character like Tarzan.

For whatever else ERB intended for the character of Jane Porter, it’s clear that he was writing for an Edwardian audience who had grown up as he had in the Victorian period. Everyone has their biases, and those were ERB’s. Our biases are different, even if we happen to admire ERB and Edwardian or Victorian sensibilities. In Tarzan of the Apes, Jane is stranded for a full month on the edge of the African jungle, and so far as ERB reports it, her only dress remains immaculate. In Return of Tarzan, when she is stranded again just a few miles away from the same spot, the men with her are reduced to improvised garments made from rodent skins while her single change of clothes remains modest and clean. My copy of P.J. Farmer’s Tarzan Alive is not where I can lay my hands on it, but my memory is that he suggests that Jane and Esmeralda were bathing in a jungle stream when she was abducted by an ape. Unadorned physical attractiveness clearly is powerful, but without other character traits, it will not generally sustain interest.

ERB apparently became aware of the same issue. In his story of Jane in Pal-ul-don (whose title seems constantly to slip my mind. Is it Tarzan the Terrible?), she develops hunting and survival skills while stranded alone in a jungle or forest. By this time in the long saga, she and Tarzan have been married for many years, and she has observed his skills. Being an intelligent woman, she figures out how to do it herself. By the time of Tarzan’s Quest, she is not only a pilot, but she has developed considerable ability to hunt and, more interestingly, to move about in the branches of the trees while wearing leather boots. I don’t recall that ERB gives us any indication that she might have learned to move through the branches as Tarzan does using his hands and arms. Swinging on vines (or conveniently placed trapezes) is left for the Tarzan of the movies.

Robin Maxwell’s Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan is a much different character than ERB’s Jane, just as her Tarzan is much different than ERB’s Tarzan. Her Jane is British with an American father who has emigrated to England. Her Jane is a medical student taking classes from her father and helping him with his research. Her Jane also has serious psychological insecurities along with a very active libido. Though Maxwell’s Tarzan and Jane are together for a long time before engaging in sexual activity, the delay seems unrealistic and contrived, and the explanation of her temporary infertility seems pedantic and unsuited to a jungle romance. Actually, a great deal of the book seems similarly unsuited. Curiously, though there is discussion of movement through the branches, it is all on foot while Tarzan once or twice swings from tree to tree on a vine, and most of Tarzan and Jane’s travel through the jungle is on the ground or through the waters of a swamp.

The Diary of Miss Jane Porter (available at erblist.com/fanfiction) began before I was aware of Jane Goodall’s interest in and influence by ERB’s Tarzan. However, I set out to create a character who would be a worthy mate for Tarzan, a strong (emotionally and psychologically), intelligent, resourceful, agile woman. In other words, she needed to be like many of the women I have known. She also needed to remain as much as possible a woman of the time in which ERB set the story. My literary device was an imagined diary which would give an insider’s view of the events while remaining close enough to ERB’s plot and setting that one could easily imagine the official, public version of the same events to be the one ERB tells. In terms of writing technicalities, Jane is the point-of-view character throughout the novel. The attire I gave Jane, and particularly the camisole and drawers, came from a reprint of a Sears & Roebuck catalog from the period. However, the garments do not remain in like-new, fresh-from-the-laundry condition, and Esmeralda expends considerable energy keeping everyone decently clothed. When Jane goes up into the trees, Tarzan at first carries her, but her independent streak leads her to try it on her own, mostly going by foot atop the branches but occasionally using hands and arms.

Though I was much happier with my portrayal of Jane Porter than ERB’s, I remained troubled by several aspects of the novel. Thus, I began a complete reworking which eventually grew into Diana’s Diary (for sale at www.amazon.com). For a variety of reasons not all having to do with legal considerations, the names have almost all been changed along with changes in plot, setting, characterization, and style; in other words, it is a different novel entirely. Diana Howard corresponds remotely to Jane Porter. She is a strong-willed, intelligent young woman who has always felt an affinity for trees and likes to read (or write in her diary) up in the branches of a tree, much like a young Jane Goodall. Rather than simply tagging along with her father on his journey to Africa (a treasure hunt in ERB and a search for the Missing Link in Maxwell), Diana is hired to go on the expedition as official chronicler. There will be more to say about the setting later, but for now suffice it to say that the expedition is deep in the Congo Free State in central Africa when the novel opens, and Diana is deeply regretting her promise to her father to refrain from climbing any trees. Soon after he frees her from the promise, she climbs and meets a wildman (who corresponds to Tarzan). Eventually, he teaches her how to travel through the branches, at first on foot and eventually fairly flying from branch to branch much as gibbons do. Though the man she meets has much to teach her (and she to teach him), both are well equipped for learning the lessons and neither starts from zero.

Speaking of movies, as I did above, leads us to one other character created by ERB, Balza, who appears in the seventeenth book of the Tarzan saga, Tarzan and the Lion Man. Balza makes only a short appearance near the end of the book. When she shows up, she is beautiful, naked, and blonde-haired, speaks the language of the great apes as well as English, and can move like and live with the great apes. As strange as that may seem, it does fit within the logic of that story. By the end of the book, she has been civilized by representatives of Hollywood, is clothed, and smokes cigarettes, a transformation as radical and much more sudden than Tarzan’s in Tarzan of the Apes. In my work with the character of Jane, I did not want to maintain ERB’s focus on blonde hair as a necessary sign of beauty, so in The Diary of Miss Jane Porter, the apes name her Kabeh for a pair of body parts which she possesses and they lack. Not much of an improvement. Early in the work on Diana’s Diary, the replacement for the apes name her Balza; in revision (and moving away from ERB’s invented ape language) the name was changed but would translate into English in much the same way. More importantly, ERB’s Balza before she is civilized is much like my Jane/Diana after she has become comfortable in the trees.

Where does this leave us? If you like ERB’s Tarzan (and perhaps his Jane), I urge you to read any of the three more modern approaches to the story. If you have developed your own understanding of Jane to the point where she is a suitable mate for Tarzan, you may not like any of these others. That’s not the point. The point is that each of them is interesting for the fresh ways that you will be led to consider the characters and the story. Of course, I feel that my latest version is the best of the three, but I urge you to read the novels before deciding they are unworthy.