William H. Hudson was born on August 4, 1841, near Buenos Aires, Argentina, and died on August 18, 1922, at Bayswater, England. His tomb is at Sussex Downs, and a statue of Rima, the heroine of Green Mansions, carved by Sir Jacob Epstein, is found in the bird sanctuary at Hyde Park in London. Although Hudson lived most of his life in England and many of his works deal with English subjects, he is still in several ways a South American writer. Even his naturalization as a British citizen at the beginning of the twentieth century does not contradict that classification.
The parents of William H. Hudson were originally from New England, but they had decided to settle in Argentina because of the milder climate. His father had moderate success as a sheep rancher, and young William spent the first fifteen years of his life in the romantic and rural surroundings of the pampas, or wild grasslands, of the Argentine Republic. He received his education through the efforts of his mother, and he developed a love for books and reading at an early age. Until 1856, then, he lived on two ranches where the observation of nature stimulated him toward the career of a naturalist and where he likewise formed many of his literary and philosophical ideas. For example, the young Hudson early sensed in his strong imagination the appeal of trees — the "green mansions" of his novel.
Hudson, however, was suddenly and rudely awakened to the realities of life when his family suffered financial reverses which required moving to a more modest home. Shortly thereafter, the boy of fifteen was attacked by typhus, and before he recovered, he was stricken with rheumatic fever. His mother slowly nursed him back to health, but her constant devotion probably contributed to her own decline in physical strength and her death in 1859. The illnesses which Hudson had faced caused in the youth a severe psychological and philosophical shock. His heart was permanently damaged, and he would never be able to lead a strenuous life. Hudson came to grips with the evil and apparently senseless aspect of nature; and like Abel, the hero of Green Mansions, Hudson saw the high hopes for a happy future shattered quickly by blind fate. The return of his brother, Edwin, from the United States gave Hudson the chance to discover the works of Charles Darwin, the English naturalist, whose ideas about natural selection and evolution were disturbing the intellectual circles of the nineteenth century. Hudson started to reject the teachings of orthodox religion and to place his faith in nature even though he could not explain and justify the force — and fury — of destiny.
After his father's death in 1868, Hudson was compelled to devote himself completely to his chosen career as a naturalist. He had already tried his hand at various jobs, such as the management of estates, and he had worked at times with the gauchos, or cowboys, of Argentina. Hudson's growing reputation as a naturalist attracted the attention of the director of the National Museum in Buenos Aires and the representative in Argentina of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. His investigations also became recognized in England, and Hudson now devoted his time to the study of the Stone Age Indians.
In 1874, Hudson decided to leave Argentina and to reside permanently in England. His reports had won him some fame among scientists in his field, and he probably felt that he could achieve more success abroad. Moreover, his temperament and training had really been more British than South American so that he consequently regarded England as his spiritual home. Two years after arriving in England, he married Emily Wingrave, a former concert singer. The marriage, not particularly happy because of the couple's incompatibility, nevertheless helped Hudson financially and gave him a stable social life. Hudson was never a very gregarious individual, and his brother echoed the thoughts of other friends when he said of him: "Of all the people I have ever known, you are the only one I don't know."
Until 1901, when he received a small pension for his nature studies, Hudson lived a life of relative hardship. Little general acclaim and even less money came to him despite his solid contributions as a naturalist. For example, he had published scholarly volumes, such as The Naturalist in La Plata, Idle Days in Patagonia, and Birds in a Village; and he made important contributions to Argentine Ornithology in 1888. During these years, Hudson had also written poetry and essays which inspired him to continue with creative literature. Two initial works, Ralph Herne and The History of the House of Lamb, were romances based upon the exotic and thrilling adventures of a young hero in Argentina.
In 1885, Hudson published his first important novel, The Purple Land, essentially an improved revision of The History of the House of Lamb. There was some encouraging praise from the critics, but again popular acceptance of his works proved elusive. The novel deals with the exploits of Richard Lamb as he battles nature and thieves in South America. The tone is romantic, the situation melodramatic, and the language sentimental, but the book is clearly redeemed by masterly descriptions of the South American continent. When the novel began to sell profitably much later, Hudson commented rather bitterly on the problems of writers and publishers.
Finally, in 1904, Hudson published his masterpiece, Green Mansions, which won him critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic and secured his reputation as a serious writer. In 1906, he revised and reissued the third of his three important romances, A Crystal Age (first published in 1887), which basked in the continuing glow of its recent predecessor, Green Mansions. A Crystal Age, a "romance of the future," is Hudson's vision of a Utopia that reflects much of the scientific spirit of his age as well as his own ideas and expectations about the coming centuries. Hudson, for example, explains that dogs and horses have developed through evolution to do menial tasks on farms. Smith, the hero, finds himself in the future where a peaceful, pastoral society shapes all decisions; and life is unmarred by the stresses and strains of an industrialized, urban civilization, which Hudson detested. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the novel for Victorian readers of the early twentieth century was that of procreation. Yoletta, the heroine, intends to choose Smith for her husband, but the latter drinks the wrong potion and loses Yoletta and his chance to live in "the crystal age."
Hudson also wrote short stories, and two of them, El Ombû and Marta Riquelme, are considered outstanding examples of their genre. El Ombû is the history of the decline and fall of a family as told by Nicandro, who is sitting in the shade of an ombu-tree. The realistic story reflects the whole atmosphere of Hudson's early years in Argentina. For instance, he tells of the fate of General Barboza, who allows himself to be bathed in the blood of a recently killed bull in order to recover from an illness and emerges insane from the ordeal. At the end, the descendants of the ruined family find some measure of peace in nature. Marta Riquelme traces the misfortunes of the heroine, as a Jesuit priest narrates a legend. The kakué bird came into existence when Marta, after escaping from captivity among the Indians, returned to her husband; and he rejected her because of her emaciated condition. The distraught woman was changed into the form of the kakué and fled into the forest. Marta Riquelme, being changed from a woman to a bird, is somewhat reminiscent of Rima, the bird-girl in Green Mansions.
In addition, Hudson showed another side to the coin of his artistry in the composition of country essays, such as The Land's End, Afoot in England, and A Shepherd's Life, which extolled the bucolic environment of the English countryside. The mood, in contrast to the delight of the wild hinterlands of South America in Green Mansions, is nostalgic and placid. During World War I, Hudson retreated to the security of his books as he saw promising young men, such as the poet Rupert Brooke, killed in action. He resigned his pension now that his finances were securely established by the continued acceptance of his works among the readers of England and America. As his life neared an end, Hudson realized that his major achievement was Green Mansions, especially because of the attention he had devoted to the South American continent in that romance. When Hudson died, Morley Roberts, who witnessed his death, wrote: "I wished to take him out upon the open pampa, with a long wide view beyond the sight of man even on horseback, with the great clear sky above. So I would have digged a grave and put him there to rest in his blanket just as he had fallen asleep, without disturbing his attitude of quiet peace."