I can’t remember where I first heard about W H Hudson’s 1904 novel Green Mansions, but I kept finding it being mentioned as beloved of a number of early twentieth century writers that I like (though I’ve forgotten which ones, apart from Joseph Conrad and David Lindsay). Anyway, it eventually gained enough readerly pull that I just had to read it.
The book’s narrator (apart from a framing-device preface) is Abel Guevez de Argensola, a young Venezuelan forced to free his home country when his parents’ political affinities clash with those of a new regime. Heading into the jungles of neighbouring Guyana, he at first follows rumours of gold until he settles with a tribe close to the Parahuari Mountains (buying his way into their affections with the gift of a silver tinderbox and his skill with a home-made guitar), and decides to spend some time far from the dangers and hassles of civilisation.
Close by his new home, he discovers a region of jungle completely unexploited by human beings, and begins to spend his days there, at first simply appreciating the strange and wonderful sights of nature, but soon becoming aware of another sentient presence that is not only aware of him, but seems to be leading him, with musical bursts of a bird-like but human-sounding language, to even more strange and beautiful sights.
The tribe he’s taken up with warn him to stay away from this area of jungle, as it’s the home of a “Daughter of the Didi”, who can catch darts fired at her, and throw them back with deadly accuracy. Abel ignores the warning, and soon meets the young woman who has been following his explorations of her region of jungle, the bird-like Rima:
“To induce her to walk soberly at my side or sit down and enter into conversation with me seemed about as impracticable as to tame the fiery-hearted little humming-bird that flashes into sight, remains suspended motionless for a few seconds before your face, then, quick as lightning, vanishes again.”
Rima lives in harmony with all the creatures of the jungle, and in fact seems to embody, for Abel, all the beauties and wonders he has come to find in the jungle itself:
“When I look at you I see them all—all and more, a thousand times, for I see Rima herself. And when I listen to Rima’s voice, talking in a language I cannot understand, I hear the wind whispering in the leaves, the gurgling running water, the bee among the flowers, the organ-bird singing far, far away in the shadows of the trees. I hear them all, and more, for I hear Rima.”
She almost comes to seem superhuman to him:
“She herself was so near to the supernatural that it seemed brought near me; indefinable feelings, which had been latent in me, stirred into life, and following the direction of her divine, lustrous eyes, fixed on the blue sky above, I seemed to see there another being like herself, a Rima glorified, leaning her pale, spiritual face to catch the winged words uttered by her child on earth.”
In a way, Green Mansions has similarities to Wuthering Heights, as both are stories of intense love where human feelings seep out and charge the landscape with that air of the supernatural, until it seems haunted by the presence of the loved one. But Rima is a very different creature from Heathcliff — almost his opposite, in that she’s a flighty, scintillant human humming bird, and Heatchliff is a walking Gothic castle.
Rima, it turns out, isn’t entirely the jungle dryad she at first seems. She is actually a human girl, living in a small hut with her “grandfather” Nuflo (in fact, an old man who took on the orphaned Rima’s care, in part out of a need to change his life and make some amends for his criminal past). And, when she starts to feel a return of Abel’s love for her, her initial reaction is panic. She doesn’t understand what she’s feeling, and for the first time insists on being taken to the land where her mother came from, to find her own people, who, she hopes, can explain these new feelings to her in her own bird-like language.
William Henry Hudson was born in Argentina in 1841. He spent his early years studying the flora and fauna of South America, before settling in England in 1874, where he made his name as an ornithologist, naturalist, and writer. His Times obituary in 1922 called him “unsurpassed as an English writer on Nature”, and Ford Madox Ford called Green Mansions “Anglo-Saxondom’s only rendering of hopeless, of aching passion”.
Rima, in Green Mansions, seems to embody Hudson’s own initiation into a relationship with the natural world, a world full of unique and wondrous living things:
“To each of us, as to every kind of animal, even to small birds and insects, and to every kind of plant, there is given something peculiar—a fragrance, a melody, a special instinct, an art, a knowledge, which no other has.”
Through his relationship with her, and with the jungle world she inhabits:
“I was changed, and this change—so great, so complete—was proof that the old artificial life had not been and could not be the real one, in harmony with my deeper and truer nature.”
Rima went on to have a funny cultural afterlife. In 1924, she was depicted on a bas-relief designed by Eric Gill and carved by Jacob Epstein, placed in the Hudson Memorial Bird Sanctuary in Hyde Park. The figure’s nudity caused something of a scandal (after all, she’s not nude in the book, but wears a scintillant gown of carefully-gathered spider-silk), with Arthur Conan Doyle and E F Benson, among others, petitioning for its removal. (It’s still there today, though.) In 1959, Rima was played by Audrey Hepburn in a film of Green Mansions, opposite Anthony Perkins as Abel. The film changed the book’s ending, but was a financial disaster. And, in 1974, Rima starred in a 7-issue run of Rima the Jungle Girl from DC Comics, where she’s depicted as a sort of female Tarzan.
Hudson’s other books include the future-set pastoral utopia A Crystal Age (1887), and the memoir Idle Days in Patagonia (1893), that I like to think influenced the title of Lord Dunsany’s 1910 short story “Idle Days on the Yann”.