Hudson, William Henry (1841-1922)

An image of William Henry Hudson in 1867, author unknown; William Henry Hudson by William Rothenstein © National Portrait Gallery, London (NP1965); Photograph by J. G. Short showing him as Member of the Council of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds published in the RSPB Bird Notes and News, Vol. III, Nr. 3, 29 September 1908; plaque placed at one of his London homes (11 Leinster Square, W2 4PL, London)

Author: Graciela Iglesias-Rogers

Naturalist, wildlife activist and writer considered as the world’s first literary environmentalist, William Henry Hudson was born on 4 August 1841 on a small ranch, Los Veinte-cinco Ombúes, on the banks of a stream called the Arroyo Conchitas which flows into the River Plate six miles to the east, near Quilmes in Buenos Aires province, then a sovereign state within the Argentine Confederation (present-day Argentina). He died in Worthington, England, on 18 August 1922. He was the fourth child of Daniel Hudson (1804–1868), a farmer, and his wife, Caroline Augusta Kimble (1804–1859), both US citizens from New England who emigrated to South America in the 1830s. W.H. Hudson’s paternal grandfather was English, from Clyst Hydon (Devon) and that seems to have at times encouraged him to refer to Devon’s capital, Exeter as his ‘natal city’ (Shrubsall, Birds of a Feather, 1981, 95) leaving aside that he only put first foot on England aged 33.

Hudson was brought up on the family’s ranch, Las Acacias, in the Chascomús district south of Buenos Aires where he was allowed to run wild, associating with neighbouring English, Scottish, Irish and US settlers, their gaucho herdsmen and native Indians while developing a passion for the wildlife of the pampas, particularly its birds on which he became an authority. Formal education was imparted by three live-in tutors, two of whom were unreliable and ill-suited to the task. Unfamiliar with rural life in Argentina, Hudson’s father ended up as a shopkeeper running a general store, but Hudson continued helping in the fields. In the main room of their house the centrepiece was a portrait of the Buenos Aires governor, the caudillo Juan Manuel de Rosas (1793-1877) and his wife Doña Encarnación Ezcurra, to the left and his opponent general General Justo José de Urquiza to the right, beside another of the second constitutional president of Uruguay Manuel Ceferino Oribe who Urquiza had removed from power. There was also a library of 400 volumes, quite extraordinary for that time and place. At fifteen, following an attack of typhus, Hudson became largely self-taught, discovering the pleasure of good reading, particularly the letters of the pioneering English naturalist, ecologist, and ornithologist Gilbert White compiled in his The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne first published in 1789. Later in his teens rheumatic fever, brought on by overexertion during a cattle drive, left him with chronic heart disease. Illness dogged him for the rest of his life, yet also furthered an inclination for favouring long, paused walking and detailed observation over the sort of testosterone-fueled stunts that boys were expected to thrive on at the time. In 1864, regardless of his physical limitations, he was compelled to join with his older brother Daniel the cavalry regiment Nr. 13 of the Guardias Nacionales. The pair was sent to the frontier of the Rio Azul in the south, where they had to keep the Indians at bay and endure the hard life in the forts. Boredom was killed by recourse to books, to the extent that later in life he reckoned that “nearly went blind through reading too much” (Hudson & Garnett. Letters from W. H. Hudson to Edward Garnett, 1925, 48), but also through occasional visits to the nearby estancia Pedernales owned by an English farmer George Keen (1794–1884) whose son George Edward Keen (1836–1911) became a life-long friend of Hudson, meeting him later again in London. The family had been host of Charles Darwin (1809-1882)  during his stay in Buenos Aires in 1833.  Between 1866 and 1869 Hudson collected birds’ skins for the Smithsonian Institution in the United States. In 1870 he became a corresponding member of the Zoological Society of London, and by a letter published in its Proceedings persuaded Charles Darwin to correct a misleading statement in his Origin of Species about pampas woodpeckers. Although he accepted the notion of evolution, Hudson did not believe ‘natural selection’ to be the sole cause of biological change. He spent 1871 observing birds in the valley of Río Negro in Patagonia where he discovered a new species of tyrant bird, subsequently named Cnipolegus hudsoni. Hudson became alarmed by what he saw as the effect on the pampas’s ecosystem caused by the large-scale immigration of bird-eating Europeans, particularly Italians.

On 1 April 1874 he took passage on the Royal Mail steamer Ebro for England, his self-styled ‘spiritual country’ (Hudson, Afoot in England, 1909, 271). Unsuccessful in obtaining employment as a naturalist, he tried fortune as a writer. Alas, the first ten years of his residence in England proved hard. He only managed to publish nine articles in popular journals and four in the Zoological Society’s Proceedings. On 18 May 1876, at St Matthew’s Church, Bayswater, London, Hudson married Emily Wingrave, a former professional singer, daughter of John Hanmer Wingrave, a senior civil servant. Despite their fondness for children the couple had none. For a decade, the Hudsons lived from the income generated from Emily running their London homes as boarding-houses, first in Leinster Square, then in nearby Southwick Crescent. The failure of both businesses drove them into rented rooms at 5 Myrtle Terrace, Ravenscourt Park, where they lived on what she earned by giving private music lessons and the little he made by writing. But in the autumn of 1888, Emily inherited a mortgaged, but substantial three-storey house at 40 St Luke’s Road, Bayswater, in which Hudson had lodged during his bachelor days. They retained a few rooms for themselves and let the remainder as flats, the rents from which paid the interest on the mortgage. Despite Hudson’s dislike of it and the district in which it was located, Tower House, as it was called, remained his home base for the rest of his life. Hudson’s first two books—works of fiction published in 1885 and 1887 respectively—were commercial failures; but a donation of £40 from the Royal Society enabled him to contribute significantly to the two-volume Argentine Ornithology (1888–9) by Dr P. L. Sclater, secretary of the Zoological Society.

His first individual success arrived in 1892 with a collection of ‘open-air’ essays, The Naturalist in La Plata. It was reviewed in Nature, 14 April 1892, by no other than Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913), the pioneering scientist, explorer, geographer, anthropologist and biologist who called it ‘a remarkable book on the habits of animals’ which, in his opinion, ‘was altogether unique among books of natural history’. During that year the failure of his novel Fan convinced him that the essay was his most appropriate literary form, a conviction confirmed by the success of his Idle Days in Patagonia a year later. It was also in 1892 when he started to spend time exploring the English countryside. A subsequent commission to write a popular reference book of British birds took him to Northumberland. In 1899 he travel around the Sussex downs and the experience resulted in his celebrated Nature in Downland (1900). In June 1900 Hudson became a naturalized British subject, and on 9 August 1901 he was awarded a civil-list pension of £150 per year ‘in recognition of the originality of his writings on Natural History’ (Parliamentary Papers, 1902, 55,133). This regular income—voluntarily surrendered in 1921—enabled him to ramble the southern English counties observing all forms of fauna and flora as well as the countryfolk that he described in his finest and highly influential rural classics Hampshire Days (1903), The Land’s End (1908), Afoot in England (1909), and A Shepherd’s Life (1910). Still, he did not abandon fiction altogether. Green Mansions (1904), a romance set in a forest in Venezuela (a county he never visited) achieved substantial sales, particularly in the United States where it was made into a movie by Metro-Goldwyn Mayer with Audrey Hepburn and Anthony Perkins in 1959. Revised editions of his first novels gained success: The Purple Land (1904), an actionpacked tale set in nineteenth-century Uruguay liberally spiced with humour and A Crystal Age (1906), a romance of a future in which the human sex drive is dormant, each community being sustained by a single breeding pair. In El ombú (1902), later published in the US under the more descriptive title of Tales of the Pampas (1916), Hudson demonstrated his competence as a short story writer. His children’s book, A Little Boy Lost (1905) blending fact and fantasy contains strong echoes of his own South American boyhood – a crucial period of his life that he sensitively disclosed in his classic autobiographical work Far Away and Long Ago (1918).

Turned into a celebrity, in November 1906, Hudson was painted by William Rothenstein, who had tactfully asked to portray the penurious 64-year-old ornithologist “for his own pleasure” (Morley, Men, Books and Birds, 1925, 81). His achievement as a naturalist had been recognized by a fellowship of the Zoological Society of London in 1898 and those as a writer merited an honorary fellowship of the Royal Society of Literature in 1912.

Activism

For thirty-one years, Hudson campaigned vigorously for wildlife conservation. Birds, the subject of such works as Adventures among Birds (1913) and Birds in Town and Village (1919) were his main concern, rivalled by an interest in insects and snakes. He was both councilor and founding father of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, freely writing many of its pamphlets and occasionally paying for their production.

As a blogger would do these days, he flooded the media with messages protesting the necessity of preserving birds from the reach of gourmets, collectors, taxidermists, sportsmen and designers of ladies’ fashions who used feathers, wings and sometimes complete carcasses of slaughtered birds to decorate gowns and hats. He also pressured local authorities to guarantee bird protection. For example, in reply to a proposal to allow the public to wander freely around the newly opened Kew Gardens in London, Hudson wrote to The Times on 12 April 1898 to suggest that people should be confined to designated paths and walks. His suggestion was ultimately adopted.

In 1900 Hudson initiated a campaign against the building of a national physical laboratory in the Old Deer Park. He wrote a letter of protest to The Times which was published on 14 April 1900 and then reprinted by the RSPB as a leaflet and distributed free of charge. It attracted a great deal of public support and was the first blow in a campaign which led to the cancellation of the project.

Aware that he had started his career collecting animal skins and dead birds when no other means existed for their study, he turned into a vocal advocate of the use of photography and drawings as suitable replacements. He also purchased caged birds to release them and encourage others to follow his example by telling in a RSBP leaflet the story of how he came about buying for half-a-crown a bird to release it in the Abbey Garden of Lewes (‘On Liberating Caged Birds’, RSPB leaflet Nr. 73, 1914, 101).

He was supported in these activities by one of his closest friends and a veteran activist himself, the socialist founder of the Scottish Nationalist Party, Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham (1852-1936). The two men shared a love of horses and a profound affection for Argentina’s natural history and traditions that Cunninghame Graham had also the chance to experience closely at first-hand.

When he died, apart from a few personal bequests amounting to £510, Hudson left his entire estate, valued at some £8225 to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds for the purpose of providing village schools with illustrated pamphlets and leaflets intended to instil and foster a love of wild birds. In Worthing’s old Broadwater Cementery his grave carries the inscription: “He loved birds and green places and the wind on the heath and saw the brightness of the skirts of God”.

A long-term influencer

Hudson’s physical appearance was impressive. He was over 1,90 meter (6 feet 3 inches) tall, though a little stooped. He had abundant brown hair which turned grey in later years, a prominent nose, a short beard, and an untrimmed moustache which almost hid his mouth. He was easy to be recognized in the countryside not just due to his height, but also because he had a penchant to wear a tailcoat with pockets in the tails, matching trousers and waistcoat, a high stiff collar, and a tie. But somehow, such lofty, urbane look never played against him. A strong sense of egalitarianism and an ability to encourage others to talk while listening attentively enabled him to establish a rapport with rural people of all classes, particularly the most humble about whom he wrote much and who also became at times his collaborators, providing information and drawings to illustrate his works – the authorship of which he always acknowledged.  When he was out of London and away from his intellectual companions and acquaintances – which included the leading writers Joseph Conrad and George Bernard Shaw – he chose to stay in cottages and farmhouses where he could be privy to the life of the community. This was a practice he had learnt early in life while exploring the vast and hotel-free plains of Argentina.

Although English was both his mother’s tongue and his language of choice, Hudson’s instincts remained Hispanic. For example, when discussing in a letter (on 26 January 1913) with the English actor and fellow wildlife campaigner John Rudge Harding Harding, The Seasons, a series of four poems written by the 18th century Scottish author James Thomson, he said: “Well, I love his style chiefly on account of what they are pleased to call its viciousness. It is what we call in Spanish a retumbante style and is I suppose too sounding and Miltonic to suit the modern taste” (Shrubsall, Birds of a Feather, 1981, 33).

Hudson’s wife Emily became a partial invalid, ostensibly from neurasthenia, in August 1911. Two and a half years later, with little likelihood of her recovering, Hudson moved her into lodgings in Worthing, Sussex, where, with a nurse–companion to care for her, she remained until her death from a cerebral haemorrhage on 19 March 1921. Hudson continued to live in London; and although periodically incapacitated by his heart condition, he visited her frequently. From 1917 he spent his winters in Cornwall, lodging at 23 North Parade, Penzance. A year earlier, the New York publisher E. P. Dutton and Company reprinted The Purple Land with a long introductory note by the former US president (and well-known hunter) Theodore Roosevelt. Increasingly unable to ramble the countryside due to health reasons, Hudson spent much of the time updating old notebooks for publication and occasionally engaging in disputes through correspondence, including with Roosevelt regarding the behaviour of pumas. Back in London for the summer, at his home in 40 St Luke’s Road, he died in his sleep of heart failure in the morning of 18 August 1922 . In accordance with instructions contained in his will his body was taken to Sussex and interred alongside Emily’s under the fourth pine tree in a row of seventeen in Worthing’s old Broadwater cemetery at Southfarm Road.

News of his death resulted in a series of praising obituaries including one from The Times which announced his passing as that of a man ‘unsurpassed as an English writer on Nature’ (The Times, 19 August 1922). Within a couple of years, in disregard of his request that no biography should be written about him and that most of his notebooks and papers should be destroyed, his friend Morley Roberts published Hudson, A Portrait (London : Eveleigh Nash & Grayson, 1924). Spurred by this publication and the reprinting of many of his books, an anonymous letter was sent to the papers destined to sully Hudson’s reputation in a fashion familiar to those acquainted now with the worst excesses in the social media (Hudson and Garnett. Letters from W. H. Hudson to Edward Garnett Published in London and Toronto. Cambridge: J. M. Dent and Sons Ltd., 1925, Preface). The undeserved onslaught did nothing but to encourage more publications from friends and followers. His influence over other writers had already been substantial and further increased. The novelist Joseph Conrad once said that Hudson used to write ‘his words as the good God makes the green grass to grow’. The poet Ezra Pound reckoned that with his ‘quiet charm’ Hudson ‘would lead us to South America; despite the gnats and mosquitoes’. In The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway made the narrator Jake Barnes to warn that Hudson’s Purple Land, is ‘a very sinister book if read too late in life. It recounts the splendid imaginary amorous adventures of a perfect English gentleman in an intensely romantic land, the scenery of which is very well described.’

On 19 May 1925, Stanley Baldwin, the British prime minister, unveiled a memorial to him in Hyde Park in London, a stone panel sculpted by Jacob Epstein and set in a bird sanctuary. A plaque was also placed by Westminster Council at one of his homes (11 Leinster Square, W2 4PL, London). In Argentina, his birthplace was transformed into a museum and ecological park named after him, the Parque Ecológico Cultural Guillermo Enrique Hudson which is visited regularly by schoolchildren and the general public. The Sociedad de amigos de Hudson (Society of Hudson´s Friends) oversees its maintenance. To mark the centenary of his birth, the Argentine Congress declared in 2021 his birthday – 4th August –  Argentina’s National Day of the Naturalist.

More in preparation

 

Sources: Shrubsall, Dennis. Walking with W.H. Hudson through the English Landscape: The Home Country of the World’s First Literary Environmentalist. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, 2008; Shrubsall, Dennis. The Writings of W.H. Hudson, the First Literary Environmentalist, 1841-1922: A Critical Survey. Lewiston, N.Y., Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 2007; Shrubsall, Dennis. “Hudson, William Henry (1841-1922), Author and Naturalist.” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: Oxford University Press, 23 September 2004 https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/34038 ; Arocena, Felipe. William Henry Hudson: Life, Literature and Science. London: McFarland & Co., 2003; Shrubsall, Dennis, ed. Birds of a Feather: Unpublished Letters of W.H. Hudson. Bradford-on-Avon: Moonraker Press; The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, 1981; Jurado, Alicia. Vida y Obra de W.H. Hudson. Colección Ensayos. Buenos Aires: Fondo Nacional de las Artes, 1971; Roberts, Morley. W. H. Hudson : A Portrait. Popular ed. London: Eveleigh Nash & Grayson, 1926; Roberts, Morley, ed. Men, Books and Birds. London: E. Nash & Grayson, Limited, 1925; Hudson, W. H., and Edward Garnett. Letters from W. H. Hudson to Edward Garnett Published in London and Toronto. Cambridge: J. M. Dent and Sons Ltd., 1925; Hudson, A Portrait (London : Eveleigh Nash & Grayson, 1924); W. H. Hudson, ‘On Liberating Caged Birds’, RSPB leaflet Nr. 73, 1914, 101.

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Thematic categories: 

Landscape & the Environment; The Arts ; Exile and Migration ; Press, Journalism & The Media ; Science, Medicine and Technology

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