- The Letters of W. H. Hudson: A Review Essay
I am still feeling very tired and weak, and miss the nice China tea at Ascot—and of course you. Especially our quarrels, which are so comforting to the spirit.(no date, 816)
This fragment is William Henry Hudson writing to Margaret Brooke the Ranée of Sarawak; it is in several ways characteristic. He was very sick as an adolescent in Argentina, and for the rest of his life his quite astonishing energy and resilience was intermitted with increasingly frequent spells of ill health, references to which run through this collection of his correspondence like a ground bass. They sound the note not of self-pity, but of frustration that yet again his body has interfered with his desire to be out doing, seeing, experiencing—or with his ability to write the articles and books that kept body and soul together. Margaret Brooke was one of the well-loved women who filled the emotional space left by his marriage. He married Emily Wingrave soon after emigrating from Argentina to England in 1874, and from the perspective of these letters it appears to have been a marriage of convenience, contracted for companionship and mutual aid, rather than one of deep or passionate love. Brooke was rich, she rated his work very highly, and above all she was intellectually stimulating. In his closest friendships Hudson needed also to find adversaries who would not take [End Page 302] personally the aggression, the harshness, the contrariness of his argument. It is precisely to the point that he found quarrels “comforting to the spirit,” and in Margaret Brooke, as we shall see, he found much spiritual comfort.
The physical comfort of a sexual relationship was a different matter. The Hudsons had no children, but beyond that there is no basis for even wild speculation about their sexual lives together. What can now be charted in some detail is the growth of Hudson’s love and desire for Linda Gardiner from 1902 onwards. Theirs is a familiar enough story: Hudson being married was for Gardiner an immovable and insurmountable obstacle to any satisfying union between them, not just because she had moral scruples he did not share—he told her explicitly in one letter that no one (that is Emily) would be hurt by their being together (though Emily might have had a different view)—but because her position as a professional woman would be fatally compromised in Edwardian society if she were to share his life in any open way. So they had a secret letter box, a secret meeting place—they had to be secret to avoid scandal; but always he begs her to give more, to be more, and rewards her with verbal caresses when in some way or another she has indeed risked a little more:
For why should you not tell me everything you would like to, since now you could not be more to me even if I had—in the old English sense of the word or phrase—known you? And you, dearest do you not feel you have known me in that sense—that we are even more one flesh than we were?(24 August 1902, 246)
The phrase “more one flesh” comes as a result of their previous meeting, when some physical advance evidently took place, the letter seems to imply—in the open air, on the Sussex downs.
And two days later he writes of her imagined presence in his life: “being here alone I often have the cloud or shadow Linda to keep me company by day and oftener still by night; but she is quite silent about Miss Substance …” (26 August 1902, 247). Her reply provokes from Hudson an elaboration of the idea of a shadow-Linda more pointed than perhaps she would have anticipated:
she is but a shadow—a personification, born of an image and a memory, and thought and emotion combined—a maid of the mind; therefore she...