O cruel!

Michael Mason

  • Far Away and Long Ago by W.H. Hudson
    Eland, 332 pp, £3.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 907871 25 9
  • W.H. Hudson: A Biography by Ruth Tomalin
    Faber, 314 pp, £13.50, November 1982, ISBN 0 571 10599 8

In W.H. Hudson’s autobiographical study, Far Away and Long Ago,[*] there is a passage which it is hard to make oneself read. The subject is the gaucho method of slaughtering a cow or bullock.

One of the two or three mounted men engaged in the operation would throw his lasso over the horns, and, galloping off, pull the rope taut; a second man would then drop from his horse, and running up to the animal behind, pluck out his big knife and with two lightning-quick blows sever the tendons of both hind legs. Instantly the beast would go down on his haunches, and the same man, knife in hand, would flit round to its front or side, and, watching his opportunity, presently thrust the long blade into its throat just above the chest, driving it in to the hilt and working it round; then when it was withdrawn a great torrent of blood would pour out from the tortured beast, still standing on its fore-legs, bellowing all the time with agony. At this point the slaughterer would often leap lightly on to its back, stick his spurs in its sides, and, using the flat of his long knife as a whip, pretend to be riding a race, yelling with fiendish glee. The bellowing would subside into deep, awful, soblike sounds and chokings; then the rider, seeing the animal about to collapse, would fling himself nimbly off. The beast down, they would all run to it, and throwing themselves on its quivering side as on a couch, begin making and lighting their cigarettes.

The effect here is not all in the subject-matter: the use of a vocabulary that is, so to speak, friendly to the gauchos and their values – ‘flit’, ‘lightly’, ‘nimbly’ – much enhances the feeling of a community almost insanely indifferent to suffering.

Such passages, though their skill confirms the interest of Hudson, pose more than one problem for those who try to write about him. Hudson’s South American background is a shadow that accompanies the idea of him as inevitably as Conrad’s seafaring, or Borrow’s gypsies, and with good reason. He was born on a ranch near Buenos Aires in 1841, and he lived in the region, chiefly in Argentina, until he came to England at the age of 32. Perhaps a third of his subsequent writing concerns South America. But the facts about Hudson’s South American years that can be gleaned outside his own autobiographical writings are extremely scanty. And these works, though necessarily the main evidence, are not consistent in their vision. For example, the great cruelty, or alleged cruelty, of Argentinian rural life does not come completely into focus until Far Away and Long Ago, which Hudson wrote during the First World War. Also new in that work, or newly emphasised, is a grotesque element, handled in a manner that has its affinities with Marquez. There are bizarre events in the natural environment: a storm of brick-shaped hailstones which kills fifty sheep and leaves hundreds more stunned for days afterwards, or occasional years when thistles on the pampas grow to ten foot, so densely that firebreaks have to be cut by dragging the carcasses of animals through them. A Marquez-like figure called ‘the Hermit’ enters the first chapter: he wears an overcoat a foot thick, lined with fragments of hide and ‘stuffed with sticks, stones, hard lumps of clay, rams’ horns, bleached bones, and other hard objects’.

Hudson knew that Far Away and Long Ago was different, but the way he explains this – as due to a sudden veridical recall of his youth in old age – compounds the problem for his biographer. The book was written in the course of a six weeks’ illness, on the second day of which Hudson had his ‘wonderfully clear and continuous vision of the past’; it became like a landscape over which ‘my eyes could range at will, choosing this or that point to dwell upon, to examine in all its details.’ The notion of the pattern of his life which he had entertained hitherto was, he saw, a ‘delusion’. These are imperative and undoubtedly sincere claims by Hudson on behalf of this particular book, but how believable are they (especially as he concedes in his penultimate chapter that he had occasionally got his chronology wrong)?

And whatever view one may take on this, the vein of brutality and grotesquerie in Far Away and Long Ago becomes additionally fascinating in the light of Hudson’s anecdote. Whether he saw into his past, or only into his own nature, on that second day of illness, the reader is alerted to certain dark themes by Far Away and Long Ago, and soon sees that they are endemic in Hudson’s forty years of literary output. That blood gushing from the cow’s neck flows out and (in a favourite motif) stains the ground in contexts as diverse as Hudson’s medieval tale, ‘Dead Man’s Plack’, and the book that in 1892 founded his reputation as a writer on wild life, The Naturalist in La Plata. In the latter case, the dead creature is also a cow, but in the former, and on many other occasions, the victim is a man. The idea of a dark or uncouth imagination in Hudson is apparently at odds with the spirit of much that he wrote, and certainly at odds with the usual perception of him (though the recent television production of A Shepherd’s Life did full justice to the bleakness in this account of English pastoral life in the last century). In the body of associations which Hudson’s name arouses, South America is probably only slightly more habitual than the notion that he was a lover of nature, to the point where his feeling had a religious character to it. This sort of topic is difficult to discuss with precision, but the version of Hudson I am thinking of is given adequately enough by his epitaph: ‘He loved birds and green places, and the winds on the heath, and saw the brightness of the skirts of God.’

Ruth Tomalin’s active interest in Hudson is of long standing, for she wrote a biography of him as long ago as 1954. She is obviously deeply acquainted with her subject. But her response to the special problems of writing about Hudson is not always satisfactory. For his early years she uses Hudson’s reminiscental writings about South America indiscriminately (and without even explaining very clearly in the notes what she is doing: so that the untutored reader will imagine that this is all well-attested fact). She draws on Hudson’s first novel, The Purple Land that England Lost (1885), for instance, as if this picaresque story of adventures in Uruguay were known to be simply autobiographical.

The Purple Land also illustrates well the problem of Hudson’s unstable or multiple vision of the continent of his birth: a vision which nonetheless remained oddly steady in some of its motifs. The book’s theme has considerable subtlety – and considerable topicality today. The purple land lost by England is Uruguay, given up by her in favour of the Falklands. The novel’s hero, Richard Lamb, at first much regrets the exchange of this ‘green world’ for ‘the desolate haunt of seals and penguins’. After he has roamed its fastnesses and met its half-wild inhabitants his views are different. To introduce the material prosperity and social discipline of the British Empire would be a tragedy: ‘British occupation does not give to the heart all the things for which it craves.’ Uruguay is now beheld by Lamb as a purple land rather than a green one because ‘what more suitable name can one find for a country so stained with the blood of her children?’

This partly alludes to civil war, but there is unusually little reference in The Purple Land to the physical brutality of the Spanish population. It is Britain whose Empire was briefly ‘planted here and abundantly watered with blood’. When a typical Hudson bloodstain story is related it concerns a fight between a man and a demon. Lamb finds this tale ludicrously superstitious, though it is solemnly believed by the teller and the rest of his audience, but the real joke is that they in turn find his account of a city covered in black fog, with a huge palace of glass, a pointless and irritating fabrication. The South American Spanish are perhaps more comic in The Purple Land than they ever were to be again in Hudson’s writing. They christen their children not only Conception, Ascension and Incarnation, but also Circumcision. Even their threats of violence are accompanied by recipes for cooking the dismembered parts of their victims.

Lamb’s very first adventure in Uruguay, however, points in a different direction. An old man ‘sickens’ him with a pair of tales of death sentences and executions in the civil war. He tells how easy it was for him to cut the throat of a spy once he had conquered his remorse on the first occasion of this kind – when he was ordered to lance a man to death, riding down on him from forty yards. Death sentences have a great importance in Hudson’s work. They are as recurrent in the rural-descriptive writing as in the fiction, while stories such as ‘An Old Thorn’ and the startling ‘El Ombu’ are entirely founded on this motif. The idea makes an especially interesting appearance at the end of Far Away and Long Ago. When he was 16, Hudson tells us, he was warned by the doctors that he might die at any moment from a weak heart. This revived a generalised childhood fear of death (‘in spite of all my strivings after the religious mind, that old dread of annihilation ... was not dead’), and also a particular image of a human being sentenced to death already presented in the narrative: namely, a suspected murderer he saw tied up in a vast barn when he was five years old (hence Far Away and Long Ago is virtually bracketed or embraced by this image). In its recalled form, the experience seems also to involve Richard Lamb’s old soldier: ‘I was like that young man with a ghastly face I had seen bound to a post in our barn; or like any wretched captive, tied hand and foot and left to lie there until it suited his captor to come back and cut his throat or thrust him through with a spear, or cut him into strips with a sword, in a leisurely manner so as to get all the satisfaction possible out of the exercise of his skill and the spectacle of gushing blood and his victim’s agony.’

Given the extraordinarily emphatic, not to say obsessive character of such passages, Ruth Tomalin must be charged with a certain evasiveness. She stresses the episode of the death sentence passed on the young Hudson by the doctors, and the atheism which evidently gave it its extra edge of horror for him, but the passage quoted at the beginning of this review, for example, will still come as a surprise to the reader introduced to Hudson by this biography (or, for that matter, by most books about him). Ruth Tomalin on just one occasion cites a piece of South American brutality as described by Hudson (characteristically, the 11-year-old William ‘was led to a great bloodstain on the grass, where a prisoner’s throat had been cut’), but one would never guess that this is the prelude, in its context in Far A way and Long Ago, to three pages concerning the gauchos’ ‘leisurely, loving way’ of cutting throats, and their ‘gloating’ conversations about it. Hudson does say that ‘as a child these dreadful deeds did not impress me,’ which Ruth Tomalin seizes on, but what of his feelings subsequently? According to Hudson, ‘such a loathing and hatred possessed me that ever afterwards the very sight of these men was enough to produce a sensation of nausea,’ and, most interestingly, this revulsion seems to have continued and intensified right down to the moment of its being committed to paper by Hudson on his sickbed in 1915: ‘all this feeling about throat-cutting and the power to realise and visualise it, came to me by degrees long after the sight of a blood-stain on the turf near our home.’

‘Realise’ and ‘visualise’ are intriguing verbs. They sufficiently connote an inventing rather than a remembering activity to make one doubt if the habits of the gaucho community are really the issue here (and after all, these were at best ‘far away and long ago’). In part, South America became for Hudson a twin of the English rural world which he explored on foot so attentively, and described in a series of works from 1900 onwards: Nature in Downland, Hampshire Days, The Land’s End, and others. Its twin, and not, except superficially, its opposite or antithesis: the unremitting cruelty of South American life which Hudson had ‘visualised’ was an inner principle of the tame English scene also. This habit of mind had its affirmative result in the interest he helped to arouse in the wild life of England, and he is rightly celebrated nowadays as a pioneer in the conservation movement. Somewhere behind the Green Party lies W.H. Hudson. It is wrong, however, to suppose that he saw in nature a repository of encouraging ethical precepts, let alone the expression of a divine principle in the world.

Some such vision is often said to be intended by Hudson in his best known work, Green Mansions. (No one could suppose this about ‘El Ombu’, the most savage and blood-boltered product of Hudson’s imagination, which many readers have rated higher than Green Mansions.) The famous Rima, subject of an infamous monument to Hudson by Epstein, is certainly a conserver of wild creatures, and she participates in their being in the sense that she imitates their forms and actions, especially those of birds. But the combination does not make her benign. In her first proper encounter with the hero, Abel, she most resembles ‘some large tropical wasp’ (and in The Naturalist in La Plata Hudson reports the ‘intense repugnance’ he feels for the ‘revolting facts’ of the wasps’ vivisection of their prey). One of the best things in Ruth Tomalin’s book – which shows her to be fully alive, in this instance, to the strange continuities in Hudson’s thought – is her perception that Rima resembles, not only other, more disquieting bird-women in Hudson’s fiction (such as the tragic Marta Riquelme and the satanic Rosaura Viera), but also the plumage-wearing English ladies of his day, the target of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds for whom Hudson did important work.

Green Mansions is widely perceived, in reputation at least, as a gentle work, but it is too much an utterance of Hudson’s for that to be true. This is how Abel takes his revenge on Rima’s killer: ‘I once more drove my weapon to the hilt in his prostrate form, and when he exhaled a deep sigh, and his frame quivered, and the blood spurted afresh, I experienced a feeling of savage joy.’ This may seem just another unwelcome addition to the catalogue of typical brutalities – and a suspiciously enthusiastic one at that – but it has a context and a bearing, as such episodes generally do in Hudson. Abel’s exhilaration in the physical revenging of Rima’s death is quickly supplanted by an impotent vengefulness against a much greater agency, and one endowed with more malevolence than Abel himself can sustain:

my sorrow revived in full force, and thought returned to madden me.

Alas, this bright being, like no other in its divine brightness, so long in the making, now no more than a dead leaf, a little dust, lost and forgotten for ever – O pitiless! O cruel!

But I knew it all before – this law of nature and of necessity, against which all revolt is idle: often had the remembrance of it filled me with ineffable melancholy; only now it seemed cruel beyond all cruelty.

Not nature the instrument, not the keen sword that cuts into the bleeding tissues, but the hand that wields it – the unseen unknown something, or person, that manifests itself in the horrible workings of nature.

So, at the climax of Hudson’s celebrated romance, God is offered to us as a kind of psychopathic gaucho: and those literal gauchos described elsewhere are, we may suppose, in tune with the ultimate tendencies of nature.

Abel’s deity is in fact a rhetorical device. This is how nature’s ‘horrible workings’ would look at the supernatural level, if there were such a thing. Hudson is perfectly frank about his atheism at the end of Chapter 23 of Far Away and Long Ago, and the passage makes strange reading as a background to his epitaph, and the ‘skirts of God’. Indeed Hudson was remarkably unflinching in his scepticism about religion, given all the reminders, of which he was very conscious, offered by his variegated life of how ancient and universal the religious impulse is in man. ‘Animism’ he could sympathise with from his experience in the wilds, but he recognised it to be exploded. Traditional Christianity (if we can judge from the evidence of ‘Marta Riquelme’ and ‘Pelino Viera’s Confession’) he saw as the European equivalent of the Inca religion. In his novel of contemporary English life, Fan (which deserves to be better known), he is acute about the half-baked scepticism of the late 19th-century educated classes: accepting Huxley, biology and physics, but not quite able to reject ‘the religious sentiment’. In the scene in which the TB victim, Merton Chance, dies, the attitude and motifs, though transposed to an English setting, are entirely characteristic of the author:

he turned to me and said, ‘Fan do you hear that robin – that little mystic robin-redbreast? Listen, he will sing again in less than twenty seconds.’ And almost before he had finished speaking, while I was looking at him, a change came over him, and his face was of the colour of ashes; and he said, with a kind of moan and so low that I could scarcely catch the last words, ‘Oh, this is cruel, cruel!’ And almost at the same moment there came a rush of blood from his mouth.

It may seem surprising that Hudson could be such an energetic and devoted student of wild life when he thought nature’s workings ‘horrible’, and the ‘mystic’ character of a robin a piece of fashionable twaddle. This is no doubt one reason why these bleak and sceptical views have been played down in most accounts of him. But the inconsistency is only apparent, in the sense that a concern about wild life is normally, in the last resort, a matter of taking pleasure in natural phenomena: a pleasure that is not grounded in ideas about their origins or purpose. In this respect, Hudson was more clear-sighted than many people presently active in the conservation movement he helped to start, who often seem to have an unrealistically agreeable picture of nature’s general scheme. Hudson, indeed, recognised that not only can we value nature without an ulterior justification, but nature may console us very effectively for precisely the harsh material truths which she reflects. He is one of the first modern writers to state the enormous and varied capacity of nature to give pleasure as a purely non-metaphysical matter, which we should not spurn because our metaphysical beliefs have gone sour. The gap between this attitude and that of the previous generation is well indicated by Hudson’s remarks about Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’, in his essay ‘The Return of the Chiff-Chaff’: ‘So, too, was the later poet wrong when he listened to the waves on Dover Beach bringing the eternal notes of sadness in; when he saw in imagination the ebbing of the great sea of faith which had made the world so beautiful, in its withdrawal disclosing the deserts drear and naked shingles of the world. That desolation, as he imagined it, which made him so unutterably sad, was due to the erroneous idea that our earthly happiness comes to us from other-where, some region outside our planet.’

[*] Also available from Dent at £5.95.