Anyone who frequents used bookstores knows that “Green Mansions” turns up constantly on the fiction shelves. There’s a good reason for this: Though initially published in England in 1904, W.H. Hudson’s masterpiece — subtitled “A Romance of the Tropical Forest” — grew immensely popular in the 1920s when it was reprinted in the United States. It then stayed popular for decades, as Knopf, the Limited Editions Club, Heritage Press, the Modern Library and half a dozen other companies published new editions, usually with illustrations by notable artists of the time. As late as the early 1960s, this delicate and heartbreaking love story could even be found abridged as a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book, which is how I first discovered it as a boy.
In essence, the novel recounts a secret chapter in the life of a recently deceased Venezuelan known simply as Mr. Abel. In his youth, Abel belonged to a cadre of hotheaded and rather foolish revolutionaries. After their coup failed, this young aristocrat fled Caracas, only escaping the police by traveling into the distant, unexplored territories of Guyana. Eventually, the young man sought shelter at a small village of Indians, where he was gradually accepted, despite considerable suspicion and distrust on their part.
While living there, Abel learns that the tribe refuses to enter a nearby forest that teems with birds and other animals. Why? Because it is inhabited by a “daughter of the Didi,” a female demon who can catch a poisoned dart and hurl it straight back into the breast of the hunter. Dismissing such superstition, Abel begins to explore these “green mansions,” in which great trees are bound together by tangles of anaconda-like lianas from which “airy webs and hair-like fibres” hang down and “vibrate to the wind of the passing insect’s wing.” Before long, though, Abel finds himself eagerly listening to, then waiting for, a certain “low strain of exquisite bird-melody, wonderfully pure and expressive, unlike any musical sound I had ever heard.” He also starts to feel that he is being watched. Fronds and creepers inexplicably rustle and once he glimpses “a grey, misty object, moving at no great distance in the deeper shadows.”
For several pages, Hudson builds up this air of the uncanny, as if he were writing a South American version of Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo,” the classic horror tale of a monstrous spirit of the Canadian woods. Instead, Abel wanders into a scene out of Greek myth: He happens upon a girl of about 17, reclining against a tree, enticing a small bird to land on her finger. Who or what is this nymph with skin like alabaster and iridescent hair?
Her name is Rima, but just what she is turns out to be far more problematic. Her native speech consists of melodious trills, she instinctively refuses to harm any beast or insect and she can race along tree branches like a monkey. Is she a feral child of some kind? Certainly, the modern reader thinks of Kipling’s Mowgli, the young Tarzan or the jealous baboon-woman in Rider Haggard’s novella “Allan’s Wife.” In contrast to them, however, Rima is a creature of air and light and exquisite sylphlike beauty. Abel compares her to a hummingbird darting among the flowers or, when she is angry, to a wasp.
Like some animals, Rima dislikes being touched and finds it troubling to look into Abel’s eyes. At night, however, the girl obediently sleeps in a small cabin with her aged “grandfather,” where she speaks halting Spanish and appears altogether pallid and spiritless. Only among the trees and foliage is she an Ariel of the tropics, all laughter and animation, playing hide-and-seek, warbling in her own strange language, completely in harmony with the natural wonders that surround her. “Look!” she cries out to Abel again and again.
As you can guess, much of the novel tracks the Venezuelan’s growing love for this elusive bird-girl, despite some occasional spats and the overarching mystery of her origins. More than anything, Rima aches with an existential loneliness, a desperate longing to discover other people like herself. Do they exist? Might they inhabit “a place apart, some deep valley perhaps, guarded on all sides by lofty mountains and impenetrable forests and marshes”?
Let’s stop there. As Earth Day approaches, you should consider picking up “Green Mansions,” if only for its rapturous evocations of a tropical habitat now threatened by modern civilization. Yet the book remains, at heart, an unforgettable depiction of love and suffering, remorse and transcendence. At one time Abel describes his soul and Rima’s as “two raindrops side by side, drawing irresistibly nearer, ever nearer” until they “touched and were not two, but one inseparable drop, crystallized beyond change, not to be disintegrated by time, nor shattered by death’s blow.”
In his later years W.H. Hudson (1841-1922) was widely regarded as Britain’s greatest living writer of English. He was, said Ford Madox Ford in a memoir, “a magician,” who “made you see everything of which he wrote, and made you present in every scene.” Joseph Conrad, he added, used to say, “You may try for ever to learn how Hudson got his effects and you will never know. He writes down his words as the good God makes the green grass to grow, and that is all you will ever find to say about it.”
Despite such encomia, today too few people read Hudson’s “The Purple Land That England Lost”— a South America romance that Hemingway admired — or Hudson’s many books about birds, or “Far Away and Long Ago,” a memoir of his youth on the Argentine pampas. Still, “Green Mansions” is the book to start with. Ford Madox Ford called it virtually unrivaled for its “rendering of hopeless, of aching passion,” and coming from the author of “The Good Soldier,” that’s saying something.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday for The Washington Post.
By W.H. Hudson
Overlook. 384 pp. $30