W. H. Hudson Essay - Critical Essays


The majority of W. H. Hudson’s fictions are categorized as “South American romances”—at one time a collection was issued under that title. Included under this label are the novels The Purple Land and Green Mansions and various shorter pieces from Hudson’s short-story collection El Ombú; the most important of these shorter pieces are the novellas “El Ombú” and “Marta Riquelme.” All of these works make constructive use of the author’s autobiographical background.

The Purple Land

The Purple Land is a documentary novel containing no plot, an imaginary travelogue set in the Banda Oriental. Itsprotagonist, Richard Lamb, has been forced to flee to Montevideo after eloping with the daughter of a powerful Argentinean family. The story concerns Lamb’s wanderings in connection with an abortive attempt to find a job managing an inland plantation. At one point, he becomes entangled in the affairs of the rebel general Santa Coloma and fights with him in an ill-fated revolution. He also attracts the attention of several women, including two very beautiful girls who mistake him for a single man and are bitterly disappointed when he informs them belatedly of his unavailability. One of these women, however, he rescues from an awkward predicament and smuggles her back to Argentina in spite of the risk to himself (the reader has already been told in the first chapter that these wanderings preceded a long spell in jail, an event that was instigated by his vengeful father-in-law and broke his wife’s heart).

The attractive features of this novel are the local color and the attention to anthropological detail. It offers a convincing picture of the life of the country, and one can easily believe that some of the episodes are based on experience, and that Hudson actually heard some of the tall stories that are told to Lamb by Santa Coloma’s rebel gauchos. The amorous encounters, however, fail to convince, and there is a certain perversity in hearing the protagonist’s overheated expressions of devotion to a wife from whom he is willingly separated, and whom he is destined to lose. In contrast to the bleak note on which the novel begins and ends, the protestations of love are melodramatic.

“El Ombú” and “Marta Riquelme”

There is no trace of this fault in the two novellas set in the same region. “El Ombú” is a chronicle of unremitting cruelty and misfortune, detailing the sufferings of a family through the memories of an old man who loves to sit and reminisce in the shadow of an ombú tree. “Marta Riquelme,” which Hudson thought the best of his stories, is even more ruthless, and it makes use of a legend connected with a species of bird called the Kakué fowl, into which men and women who experience unendurable suffering were said to change. The story is narrated by a Jesuit priest, who describes the tragic career of Marta, captured by Indians, robbed of her child, and so mutilated that when she returns to her own people they will not accept her and drive her out to find her fate.

These stories were called “romances” because their subject matter was exotic to an English audience; in fact, however, they are examples of determined narrative realism (unless one accepts the Jesuit priest’s dubious allegation that Marta Riquelme really does turn into a Kakué fowl). They present a view of life in South America that is very different from that of The Purple Land, a book that glosses over the plight of the common people and the cruelties visited upon them. They bear witness to the fact that Hudson, once emerged from the cocoon of his ideal childhood and initiated into the ways of the world, was deeply affected by what he discovered. He carried away from South America much fonder memories of the birds than of the people, the grotesqueness of whose lives appalled him even though he tried with all his might to sympathize with them.

A Crystal Age

In between The Purple Land and “El Ombú,” Hudson wrote two other novels. One, the pseudonymous Fan, appears to have been an attempt to write a conventional three-decker novel of domestic life. The book has little to recommend it, being an entirely artificial product with little of Hudson in it, appearing when the day of the three-decker was already past. The other novel, A Crystal Age, also appeared without Hudson’s name on it, being issued anonymously, but Hudson acknowledged authorship when it was reprinted in the wake of the success of Green Mansions.

A Crystal Age is a difficult work to classify: It is a vision of an earthly paradise, but it is Arcadian rather than utopian in character and is by no means polemical. It carries no political message and might best be regarded as a fatalist parable lamenting the imperfections of nineteenth century humankind.

The narrator of the story tells the reader nothing about himself except that he is an Englishman named Smith. He is precipitated into a distant future where human beings live in perfect ecological harmony with their environment. Each community is a single family, based in a House that is organized around its Mother. The Mother of the House that takes Smith in is secluded because of illness, and it is some time before Smith realizes that she is an actual person rather than an imaginary goddess. When he repairs the most damaging of his many breaches of etiquette by making himself known to her, she treats him harshly but later forgives him and awards him a special place in her affections.

Smith never fully understands this peculiar world. He is passionately in love with a daughter of the House, Yoletta, whom he believes to be about seventeen years of age. Even when she tells him how old she really is, he cannot see the truth: that these people are so long-lived, and live so free from danger, that their reproductive rate has to be very slow. The Mother is revered because she really is the mother of the household: the only reproductive individual. When Smith tries desperately to woo Yoletta, she genuinely cannot understand him. Nor can Smith see, though the reader can, that the Mother holds him in special esteem because she plans to be followed in her role by Yoletta and is grooming him for the role of the Father. He remains lost in an anguish of uncertainty until he finds a bottle whose label promises a cure for misery. He immediately believes that it is the means by which his hosts suppress their sexual feelings, and he drinks to drown his own passion. He discovers too late that it is actually the means by which those in mortal agony...

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