I had read one other story in the Amelia Peabody series before I read The Ape Who Guards the Balance (The Ape). The Ape occurs before my previous read. As each story solves its mystery, that was not a problem. Nor did I have difficulty jumping into the overarching story of the Emerson family.
Elizabeth Peters writes about the adventures of the Emerson family and their friends, servants and enemies. The family consists of Amelia Peabody Emerson (matriarch) and Radcliffe Emerson (patriarch). Both Amelia and Radcliffe have been with the series from the beginning. Walter (Ramses) is their son and Nefret their ward. In The Ape we also have Lia, the daughter of Radcliffe’s brother and sister-in-law and their ward, David. All six travel to Egypt for the 1906-07 excavation season.
Their adventures begin before leaving England. A mysterious man appears at a suffragette picket that Amalie and Ramses attend. This man later turns up in connection with a break-in and hauls away a large collection of Egyptian antiques. Shortly after, the stranger also seems to be involved in a kidnapping attempt of Amalie. The entire family suspects an old “enemy”, Sethos.
Once they arrive in Egypt, Ramses and David go on an adventure including a stolen papyrus, mysterious strangers and a blackmailing Nefret. The Professor is livid when he finds out what the threesome has done. But he is also intrigued. Then a mysterious bearded man turns up in Egypt as well, and it is not Sethos.
The Emerson family is egalitarian for the time it is written for (and for many families and places today). Nefret has just finished her clinical practice and Peters show us what a feat that was for a woman:
“Acquiring that training had been a struggle in itself. Over the violent objections of its (male) medical faculty, the University of London had, finally, opened its degrees to women, but the major universities continued to deny them, and the difficulty of obtaining clinical practice was almost as great as it had been a century earlier. Nefret had managed it, though, with the help of the dedicated ladies who had founded a woman’s medical college in London and forced some of the hospitals to admit women students to the wards and dissecting rooms.”
Lately, I have begun wondering whether I read male and female leads differently. Many of the comments on The Ape seem to be consistent with comments on strong women both in fiction and real life. A woman as strong as Amelia Peabody will be dissed for being strong but not perfect. In The Ape she certainly shows that she is far from perfect. Her own bias surprised her when David and Lia announced their engagement. She and Emerson are peas of a pod when it comes to stubbornness and a sense that their opinion is the only correct one, even if that opinion changes later on. Both see the other as emotional, adorable and hot. The words used to describe these qualities are different for each of them, further cementing both the standards of the time and the continued power language has today. We do get a taste of what it would be like if language was equal for both men and women in this thought from Amelia:
“… it was time for me to take charge of the discussion, which had degenerated into a series of emotional exchanges. This is often the case when men carry on a conversation.”
Gender is far from the only topic discussed in The Ape. Racism and classicism are very much present in the Victorian English who come to Egypt to loot the graves of ancient rulers and take their loot back to England. Peters points out the difference in the handling of this loot. Sometimes graves were completely vandalized by so-called archaeologists. Others, at least, tried to maintain both loot and their chambers as intact as possible. The Emersons’ are of the last category.
Issues and mystery are both weaved together in an enchanting story in the Agathaian (Agatha Christie) style. I definitely recommend The Ape Who Guards the Balance.
- French: Le papyrus de Thot; Trans: François Truchaud; Paris, Le Livre de Poche, 1998.
- German: Die Hüter von Luxor; Trans: Beate Darius/Barbara Mertz; Dusseldorf, Econ & List Taschenbuch Verlag, 1992.
- Italian: Amelia Peabody e Il librio dei morti / Il papiro insanguinato; Trans: M. B. Piccioli; Mondadori, 1998
- Polish: Matpa na strazy wagi; Trans: Jankowski Piotr; Wydawnictwo Slowko, 1998
- Spanish: El Mono que Custodia la Balanza; Trans: Inés de la Mota; Madrid, Punto de Lectura, 1998