Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Bird Girl

Green MansionsGreen Mansions 
by William Henry Hudson

"I began to hear . . . a low strain of exquisite bird-melody, wonderfully pure and expressive, unlike any musical sound I had ever heard before."
Green Mansions Chapter II, W. H. Hudson

Green Mansions: a Romance of the Tropical Forest (1904) is an exotic romance by W. H. Hudson (1841-1922) about a traveler to the Guyana jungle of southeastern Venezuela and his encounter with a forest dwelling girl named Rima. Hudson was born in Argentina, son of settlers of U.S. origin.
He spent his youth studying the local flora and fauna and observing both natural and human dramas on what was then a lawless frontier, publishing his ornithological work in Proceedings of the Royal Zoological Society, initially in an English mingled with Spanish idioms. He settled in England during 1869. He produced a series of ornithological studies which helped foster the back-to-nature movement of the 1920s and 1930s. He was a founding member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Hudson wrote more than three dozen books during his life but by far his best known novel is Green Mansions, and his best known non-fiction is a memoir, Far Away and Long Ago (1918).

When I began to reread Green Mansions recently I instantly remembered why it impressed me so much. More than most other authors Hudson is able to instill the sense of wonder through his protagonist Abel who, while living by the Orinoco river in Venezuela, is drawn to the forest lands by strange bird-like singing. There he discovers a young girl named Rima and it is her story that takes up much of the remainder of the novel. She is unspoiled and wild like the animals among whom she lives. She knows neither the evil nor guile common to most civilized humans. This gives her supernatural stature in the eyes of the worldly Abel, who falls passionately in love with her.

Hudson based Rima and her lost tribe on persistent rumors about a tribe of white people who lived in the mountains. Temple paintings often showed light-skinned people, and Spanish Conquistadors were at first thought to be gods. I first read this novel when I was in high school and the memory of its' evocative and lyrical prose has lingered over the intervening decades. With qualities of a striking and original sort it has an enchantment; its pages are haunted by an unearthly perception of beauty and a wonderment that stirs the imagination. The story is one of people who are almost in an original state of nature, a romantic, if flawed, view (perhaps inspired by Rousseau) that suggests their world may be better than civilization.

Green Mansions is one of the few novels ever to become an undisputed classic during the author's lifetime. It inspired a statue of Rima that you can find in Kensington Garden, London. It is a book I found to be truly enthralling and full of romantic magic making it a great read.

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