Posts Tagged ‘The Classics Club’

green mansions 1944 dj w h hudsonGreen Mansions: A Romance of the Tropical Forest by W.H. Hudson ~ 1904. This edition: Random House, 1944. Introduction by John Galsworthy (1915); illustrations by E. McKnight-Kauffer. Hardcover. 303 pages.

My rating: 3.5/10

Memorable and deserving of its status as a literary classic? “Yes” to the first bit – it is definitely memorable – and “Sure, okay, I guess so” to the second. I can see how this one caught people’s attention, with its exotic setting and all. In 1904 deepest darkest Amazonia was still fairly blank on the world map.

Enjoyable reading? I am so sad to say that as far as I’m concerned, this is an emphatic “No!”

Ugh. It’s been a very long time since I read something that repelled me as deeply as did Green Mansions, glowing descriptions of Amazonian flora and fauna and Galsworthy’s effusive foreword aside.

Venezuelan aristocrat Abel gets mixed up in a failed coup and must flee for his life. He ends up in the interior of Guayana, someplace beyond the Orinoco River. As he wanders about, doing a bit of hunting here, a bit of gold prospecting there, he starts to gain an appreciation for the natural wonders of the jungle. He then falls in with a small tribe of “savages” and decides that maybe this would be a cool place to hang out for a while. Impressing the chief savage with the gift of a silver tinderbox, Abel slings his hammock in the corner of the communal shelter and settles down to being waited on by the women in between stints of building himself a guitar and condescendingly teaching the youngsters of the group to fence with wooden foils.

The E. McKnight-Kauffer illustrations in my 1944 edition of this book are lovely; the best part of the book!

The E. McKnight-Kauffer illustrations in my 1944 edition of this book are lovely; the best part of the book! Check out all the symbolic details that the illustrator has included here.

To condense greatly (which I wish the author would have) Abel encounters a mysterious girl in the nearby forest, in the taboo region where his host tribe will not hunt. She teases him with glimpses of her lovely self, all the while whistling and chirping like a mysterious bird. Eventually the two make contact, but as he embraces the elusive creature Abel is bitten by a deadly coral snake. He flees through the forest, expecting death at any moment, stumbles upon the camp of an old European man, and collapses. When he comes to, miraculously on the mend from the snakebite, he finds that he has found Bird Girl’s “grandfather”, a shifty-eyed elderly bearded type named Nuflo.

Much twittering about the forest ensues, Abel lusting after Rima (which turns out to be Bird Girl’s name) and Rima being all ethereal and hard to get. She’s the wood nymph protector of the forest creatures, etcetera. Meanwhile Nuflo daily sneaks off with his two dogs and surreptitiously kills the odd little animal, which he devours in a secret hideaway, joined by Abel who is getting rather famished living on the roots and berries which Rima feels are the only food needed to sustain life.

At some point all three go off to the place “twenty days away” where Nuflo discovered her wounded mother, on a quest to find Rima’s hypothetical vanished tribe. (Nuflo, “grandfather” title to the contrary, is actually no relation, but he had appointed himself guardian of the tiny child when her mother eventually died, some ten years before Abel enters the picture. Rima is now seventeen, making her ripe for love and hence fair game, as the author continually implies.)

Off to find the lost tribe.

Off to find the lost tribe.

Anyway, Abel convinces Rima that her mother’s tribe appears to be truly vanished, and Rima decides to return to the forest, leaving Abel and Nuflo to follow at their own pace, because she’s just so darned marvelous and ethereal (not to mention weather resistant in her spiderweb dress) and not requiring of any boring shelter or cooked food so she can travel so much faster than the menfolk. And she wants to prepare a lovely forest home for herself and Abel, as she has finally agreed to give in to his passionate entreaties, but she wants them to “do it” properly in nice surroundings.

So imagine Abel’s feelings when he and Nuflo come back home to find that the savages have chased Rima to the top of a tall tree and then burned it down, with her plunging to a fiery death. We don’t get to witness this, just hear about it from one of the savages, leading to the false hope that Rima may still be alive out there in the forest. (Spoiler: She isn’t.)

Rima's spirit lives on is the gist of this one, I think.

Rima’s spirit lives on is the gist of this one, I think.

Abel vows revenge, and goes to the next tribe of savages over (who are, naturally, sworn enemies to the first tribe of savages) and sets them to slaughter tribe of savages number one. Once everyone is dead (including Nuflo), Abel scrapes up Rima’s ashes, makes an ornate clay urn to contain them, and returns to civilization, where he spends his time pondering the wickedness of man, the glorious wonder of nature, and the sad fate of his bird girl.

I’m trying to think of one single character who didn’t make me want to vehemently cuff them at some point, but nope, can’t do it. Rima is just plain annoying, with her teasing girlish ways, her glowing red eyes, greyish-ivory skin, cloud of halo-like hair and spiderweb dress. Abel is a lout, living off the locals and rudely critiquing every detail of their morals, intelligence, appearance and lifestyle. Nuflo is shady to the nth degree, and the native tribespeople are paradoxically portrayed as universally unintelligent, deeply superstitious and highly manipulative.

I am glad I finally read this book, as it is so highly regarded by so many and so often referenced in literature, but I am even gladder to have turned the last page, and I have zero intention of ever reading it again.

Onward then, to something more palatable. I deserve something really good, I think, to take the taste of this one away. Let’s see now… maybe something by Elizabeth von Arnim? Of a similar vintage, to restore my faith in authors of this era.

This is how I felt after reading this book. (The illustration is actually from early on in the story, when Abel despairs at getting his hands on the elusive Rima.)

This is how I felt after reading this book. (The illustration is actually from early on in the story, when Abel despairs at getting his hands on the elusive Rima.)

And please don’t let my snarly review put you off. Thousands thrilled to this book, and you might well be among them. Here it is, online at Project Gutenberg.

Green Mansions by W.H. Hudson

Has anyone else read this? Loved it or despised it or felt completely ambiguous about it? Please do share!

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rebecca of sunnybrook farm kate douglas wiggin 001Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin ~ 1903. This edition: Grosset and Dunlap, circa 1920. Hardcover. 342 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

I never read this venerable classic as a child, coming to it in young adulthood, but I enjoyed it when I did finally settle down to it. My tattered paperback copy was packed and unpacked over a number of moves until coming to rest at the back of the schoolroom bookshelf, where it still sits today. I hadn’t realized that my first copy was a quite highly edited one – “abridged for younger readers”, if one reads the fine print – until I stumbled upon this vintage hardcover, read it, and realized that there was more to the story than I had been aware of.

Not much more, really, mostly just an elaboration on the religion-related episodes, where Rebecca mulls over the appeal of the missionary life and discusses her faith at length, but it was satisfying to at last read the book as it originally appeared in print.

11-year-old Rebecca Rowena Randall (her late father was a devotee of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe) has been sent off to live with her two spinster aunts in Riverboro, as her widowed mother is having a difficult time making ends meet for herself and her seven children on mortgaged Sunnybrook Farm. And it’s interesting to note that though Rebecca identifies herself as coming from Sunnybrook Farm, and obviously has strong sentimental ties to her family home, we don’t get any further acquaintance with the place itself, with the action taking place almost exclusively in Rebecca’s new home.

Grim Aunt Miranda and quiet Aunt Jane are unprepared for the bouncing Rebecca as they had requested her sober older sister Hannah instead, but after the initial surprise all accept the situation and prepare in their various ways to make the best of it. This is the era of stern duty, after all.

Do I need to detail the escapades which Rebecca gets herself into and out of? It’s fairly standard stuff for this sort of novel, and anyone who is familiar with Louisa May Alcott, L.M. Montgomery and Jean Webster can fill in the blanks. Rebecca finds kindred spirits in an elderly childless couple to whom she can tell her woes when Aunt Miranda’s sharp tongue stings too much to bear, and she soon teams up with a best chum, in this case the blond and smiling Emma Jane Perkins, good natured foil to her more rambunctious and clever friend. The two attend the local one-room school together, have ins and outs with the other children, deal with the school’s Mean Girl, the cruelly named Minnie Smellie, and good-naturedly patronize the local ne’er-do-well family, the Simpsons, headed by the light-fingered Abner, master of the midnight visit and the subsequent “trading” of goods picked up from about the neighbourhood.

In a scenario which reminded me of the later Daddy-Long-Legs plot, the young Rebecca (she’s only eleven at the start of the story) meets a much older wealthy bachelor (Adam Ladd is thirty when he and Rebecca first meet), charms him with her childish prattle, and evokes feelings which grow into something much more mature in both parties. But that is looking far ahead, though hints are abundant from the first meeting that Adam and Rebecca have “special” feelings for each other, and of course nothing untoward happens, with Adam nobly refraining from romantic thoughts about his young protégé until she reaches college age. At which point, let’s see… he is thirty-eight and she is seventeen. This raises a bit of an “ick” response in modern-day me, but it seems perfectly acceptable to this time period’s novel writers, so I’ll just leave it right there, labelled prominently “Era Acceptable”.

Rebecca is a truly charming heroine with an innate dramatic bent which shows itself in her love of writing and music. As well as creating poetry and stories, Rebecca sings beautifully and later masters the piano, with the author being very clear that in all of these accomplishments her heroine has had to stringently apply herself to master the crafts and to polish her natural abilities, which I found nicely refreshing – too often our young protagonists blithely achieve lofty heights with surprising and unlikely ease.

Early on in the story I started thinking, “Hmm, this story seems just a bit familiar. Haven’t we met these people before on Prince Edward Island?” A quick internet search showed that I was not alone in this thought, though I was mildly surprised to realize that Rebecca was created first, with Anne following several years later. Check out this article, Mirror Images: Anne of Green Gables and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, which is quite fascinating in its examination of parallels between the two iconic literary heroines.

Likeable as Rebecca is – and she is truly a winsome child – she never quite comes to life as does her younger literary sister Anne. Kate Douglas Wiggin seems to be standing just a little off in the distance in describing her creation’s thoughts and feelings; her rather stilted language and stock situations belonging more to the 19th Century, whereas Anne feels much more like a creature of the here and now.

A must-read for anyone at all interested in the time period and the vintage “youth fiction” genre; there is humor and irony galore to reward the adult reader of young Rebecca’s adventures, though I’m afraid a young reader of the 21st Century might bog down somewhat in all of the missionary subplot and the relative mildness of the “action”.

new chronicles of rebecca kate douglas wigginNew Chronicles of Rebecca by Kate Douglas Wiggin ~ 1907. This edition: Grosset and Dunlap, circa 1920. Hardcover278 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

I was pleased to discover that there is a companion book to Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, New Chronicles of Rebecca, published four years later, in 1907. It consists of a linked series of anecdotes enlarging upon and adding to the Rebecca saga, drawing on readerly familiarity with Rebecca’s original adventures, and giving many more details as to her life and some strong clues to her future.

Because of its anecdotal nature, this is much less of a stand-alone novel than the first Rebecca, but it is thus freed up to delve into some intriguing sidelines of life in Riverboro. We meet Emma Jane’s swain, Abijah Flagg, and hear his back story, as well as becoming more intimately acquainted with the Simpson clan. Though Rebecca is viewed primarily as a children’s story, it is very apparent in New Chronicles that the author is writing as well to the mature members of her readership, as a key plot concerns the common-law relationship of the Simpsons, and Rebecca’s part in awakening the feckless Abner to the wrong done to his “wife” (and mother of his children) by his neglect of the religious ceremony to legitimatize their relationship.

In another chapter, a young woman abandoned by her husband during her second pregnancy dies along with her newborn child, and the young Rebecca and Emma Jane have the distressing and quite graphically described experience of being left alone with the deceased while Emma’s father goes to fetch the neighbours. Luckily the now-motherless first child creates a diversion, and then a longer-term project as the girls decide to prevent young Jack’s disposal of to the poorhouse. The girls find him a foster mother and form a society of benevolent young “aunts” to oversee his amusement.

In general this is a mild addendum to the classic novel, but it adds enough to the overall portrait of Rebecca and her associates that it should really accompany the original as a required-reading companion volume.

A pleasant reading experience, both of these books. Though I warn you that you may look at Anne of Green Gables with new eyes on your next reading, and wonder just a bit how carefully L.M. Montgomery was examining K.D. Wiggin!

Here are both of the Rebecca books online at Project Gutenberg, along with numerous other examples of this prolific author’s work.

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