‘THERE was no one I thought more highly of as a man, or respected as a genius,’ Cunninghame Graham wrote of W. H. Hudson shortly after his death in 1922. ‘That he was a genius, 1 think all his real admirers know. Some day the world will become aware of it.’ Conrad thought he wrote as the grass grew. Madox Ford considered him the greatest prose writer of the day, and Galsworthy wished that every man, woman and child in England were made to read him. Yet it is sixty years since Hudson died, in a gloomy boarding-house in Bayswater, and the grass has grown over his name. If he is remembered at all, it is for several rather quaint novels and some sawdusty books on birds.
At first glance, Hudson’s life is as unremarkable as his reputation today. He made his deep impression, though, not for the things he did, but for the man he was, and his ability to recreate what he felt and saw in words. His genius has gone unrecognised because the epithets visionary, seer and naturalist are unfashionable and distancing. In fact he deserves far more.
Hudson’s life, like his work, is a combination of the preternatural and the ordinary. ‘Never was a more mysterious man than Hudson,’ wrote another friend, Morley Roberts. ‘And never one so plain.’ He was born on 4th August, 1841, in the district of Quilmes, eleven miles south of Buenos Aires. His grandfather was a Devon man who had emigrated to America, from where, in 1832, Hudson’s parents came to seek their fortune as sheep-ranchers on the Argentine plains. Until the age of five, he lived in a mud and wattle farmhouse, beside twenty-five huge ombu trees. The family moved for a time to the estancia of Las Acacias, near Caseros, but his father proved such a hopeless businessman that they returned in 1856 to Quilmes. These early years, culminating in his contraction of a rheumatic fever and his mother’s death, are chronicled in Far Away and Long Ago. Little has passed on to us of his remaining life in Argentina. He trained with the National Guard to fight Indians and could even have seen service in the Paraguayan wars. It is known he spent some months driving flocks of sheep through La Plata down to Patagonia where he may have stayed a year. What emerges clearly is that Hudson’s great obsession with nature already coloured everything he did. By 1868, the year his father died, he had collected 500 bird skins for the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. Some time after he sailed for England.
It is thought Epstein’s sculpture of Rima, the half-bird, half-woman in Hudson’s novel Green Mansions, marks the place in Hyde Park where he slept on coming up to London. He lived, for a while, concocting genealogies for Americans anxious to trace their English ancestry. In 1876 he married his landlady, Emily Wingrave, a tiny woman fifteen years older, who came up to his elbow. She had been an opera soprano once, and he loved to hear her sing at 11 Leinster Square. Like his father, she too went bankrupt. ‘One week we lived on a tin of cocoa and milk.’ Eventually, she resumed work in a dingy house near Paddington Station, left her by a sister. It was here, plagued by bronchitis and pleurisy, that Hudson began writing. Not for some twenty years, however, was he to receive recognition for novels like The Purple Land (1885) and Green Mansions (1904), and such distinguished books as The Naturalist in La Plata (1892) and Idle Days in Patagonia (1893). Pressure from friends, among them Edward Thomas, George Gissing, Edward Garnett and Viscount Grey, was to secure him in 1901 a Civil Service pension of £150. Thereafter he was able to escape the ‘huge Clapham junction’ of society. Smartly turned out in his linen collar and cuffs and a brownish tweed suit, this tall, gaunt man with a peaked grey beard, would lope through the Hampshire and Sussex downs and along the Cornish coast. What he saw enlargened through his field glasses was translated into yet more books, on the English countryside and bird life.
Hudson cannot be pigeon-holed as a field naturalist. His methods were not those of an exact man of science. He had qualities in common with the natural world which made him a creature apart, like the new species of bird he discovered in Patatgonia, the Black Tyrant – or Cnipolegus hudsoni. And it is in aquiline terms that others described him – ‘an eagle among canaries’ to Morley Roberts, recalling his bird-like falsetto voice, his gravity and aloofness. One woman was heard to say she could never take Hudson as a lover – sooner have an affair with an eagle or a thunderstorm. If he stood out as a person, it was because he dissolved into the world about him. (He was so grey that standing by a wall he seemed invisible). He wanted so little truck with the world of men, that at the end of his life he collected back the 20,000 letters he had written them and had the packets burnt. Not even his brother had the measure of the man. ‘Of all the people 1 have ever known,’ he said, seeing him off in Buenos Aires, ‘you are the only one I don’t know.’
Hudson used to say that his life ended when he left South America. Those who knew him in Emily’s boarding-house likened him to a bird with clipped wings pressing against the cage. Once, when he met Cunninghame Graham in the park on his black mustang, Pampa, the memory of his youth became intolerable. ‘O Pampa!’, he exclaimed as he patted the horse. Then he put his arms around the animal’s neck and wept. It was as an old man, lying seriously ill in a Cornish hospital, that the first eighteen years of his life were ‘all at once revealed as if by a miracle.’ For six weeks the past was vividly restored, to be retained in his masterpiece, Far Away and Long Ago. ‘Some day a biographer will take the story of his early life and having killed and skinned it will boil it down into two chapters, as if it were a carcass to be rendered into fat.’ So wrote Morley Roberts. ‘Better far to let the book speak for itself: the supreme record in all literature of a boy’s life and experience.’
As with Wordsworth, whose ‘far off things and battles long ago’ may have inspired the title, the child in Hudson was always father to the man. Like the gaucho, moving at one with horse, Hudson was a child of the saddle. The vast plains left his mind free and open to receive an impression of the world as a whole. He would accompany the cattle coming home at sunset, raising dust and bellowing with thirst. Whipping up his horse, he would charge at the spoonbills and herons on the lake, and watch them rise from the spray. Everything was governed by his ‘perpetual rapturous delight in nature and my own existence … a purely physical delight’ – which led him to believe he could actually hear the thistles growing. He scaled trees to feel the warm eggs in a nest, he chased ostriches, and let himself be dragged into the earth up to his elbow by burrowing armadillos. He leaves us also with an unforgettable picture of the people around him. The ‘natives’ – the estanceros of Spanish descent – like Dona Pascuala, never without a cigar in her mouth, or Cipriana, who had given herself too freely to a lover and watched the dust road for his return until her death; and the English settlers like Mr Trigg, Hudson’s freeloading schoolmaster, who read Dickens, brandished a whip and was partial to dressing up as a Scots lady in sunbonnet and spectacles.
No fruit is forbidden to Hudson in recalling his childhood. He finds something exotic in the most common or garden incident and object. Like a rare plant under the blue sky, on the brown soil beneath the grass the trees and the animals, he flowers because he also knows the cold south wind. Growing up with the gauchos, who used the skull of a cow for their chair and would slit your throat for a pair of boots, Hudson’s physical contact with nature becomes gradually complicated by an awareness, and fear, of death. This fear, brought home finally by an attack of typhus, was compounded by his religious doubts and discovery of Darwin – all of which made him more spiritually questioning. Hudson’s answer was to be found in animism, ‘the tendency or impulse or instinct in which all myth originates, to animate all things; the rejection of ourselves into nature,’ to achieve a sense of the supernatural in natural things. This belief, that all he saw was in some way linked, made him feel ‘my flesh and the soul are one and the heat in my blood and in the sunshine are one and the winds and tempests and my passions are one.’ And he reflects this kinship in his descriptions of hailstones large as fowl’s eggs, flowers the size of coffee cups and a man’s face like the setting sun.
Hudson is not afraid to ramble or repeat himself. His pen has none of the artist’s flourishes or concern with technique. It is both a reed and quill which conveys a genuine vision with unaffected clarity, restoring truth to what we have come to regard as cliche, and primary meaning to words such as sweetness and joy. To read Hudson at his best is to see the world after a heavy rain, to smell it afresh, to catch sight of its original colours and to feel properly alive.
Nicholas Shakespeare 1982