11 JANUARY 1986, Page 42

A maid but perhaps no wine

Francis King


Michael Russell, f12.95

The subtitle of this small, impeccably edited collection of letters may be the cause of misapprehension. It consists not, as one might be tempted to infer, of a ping-pong game of letters between the sunniest of naturalists and the gloomiest of novelists, but of 17 letters written by Hudson to Gissing, of nine letters written by Gissing to Hudson, and then of a further 100 letters, occupying more than half the book, written by Hudson to a variety of correspondents ranging from Gissing's younger brother Algernon, an indifferent writer, to the Maharanee of Sarawak, Lady (Margaret) Brooke, who at that period owned a mansion in Ascot, a huge flat in London and a cottage in Cornwall.

That each was a conscientiously dogged, rather than a brilliant, correspondent, was not the sole thing that George Gissing and Hudson had in common. Both were mar- ried to women intellectually and socially their inferiors. (Gissing's first wife was a former prostitute, the second, according to H. G. Wells, a servant-girl, picked up in Regent's Park, who degenerated into a 'resentful, jealous scold' before having to be confined in an asylum. Hudson's wife, 15 years his senior, was an unsuccessful boarding-house keeper, until a legacy from her sister made a small rentiere of her). Both suffered from chronic ill-health, Gis- sing from the pulmonary tuberculosis that killed him at the early age of 46, Hudson from the effect on his heart of the rheuma- tic fever that had obliged a once vigorous youth, roaming on horseback the great plains of Argentina, to become an obser- ver, instead of a participant, in the drama of life. Both, residents of the New Grub Street that gave its title to one of Gissing's finest novels, poured out book after book and article after article, in order to survive in the kind of genteel poverty that, in Edwardian times, did not prevent a man from keeping a maid but made him think twice about having a bottle of wine with his dinner. In a letter to his sister, not in this collection, Gissing wrote of how 'Suddenly in the middle of writing I am attacked by a fearful fit of melancholy, and the pen drops, and I get nothing done.' Yet, the astonishing thing is how much he and Hudson did get done.

Gissing's letters are, in general, superior to Hudson's. There is one particularly moving one here, written from Athens in 1889, before he travelled on to Italy, to join H. G. Wells on the journey that was to result in By the Ionian Sea. From Naples, he was to write even more euphorically: 'Ha, ha! Sunlight and warmth and uproar and palm trees and wine and fruit Napoli, Napoli! How glorious it is to be here.' Sadly, it was only in the last years of his life that this kind of liberating travel 'Are you interested in kinky sex?' was possible for him. For Hudson it was never possible, with Argentina never revi- sited except in his memory and his furthest excursions, during which he would scrupu- lously observe and record the natural phenomena around him, being restricted to places like Penzance, Weymouth, Cromer, Maidenhead and Wells-next-the- Sea.

That, for all the occasional asperities of his later years, Hudson was a gentle, kindly man is illustrated by the number of occa- sions in these letters when he tempers the candour of a literary judgment with pre- varication or even falsehood. To George Gissing's brother Algernon he was particu- larly merciful. The first of Algernon's novels had been entitled Joy Cometh in the Morning, but what usually came in the morning for the Algernon Gissing house- hold were bills and the anxiety arising from them. In later years Algernon's children were totally indifferent to his books 'they came,' his son Alwin explained, `to assume a sort of curse on the family.' Yet Hudson, though it is hard to believe that he had any belief in Algernon's vocation as a novelist, nonetheless never failed to give him encouragement.

The letters to the Ranee of Sarawak show a vigour lacking in all but the best of the others. It is as though the aging, ailing Hudson — he was 63, she 55 when they first met — has suddenly been aroused out of his despondent valetudinarianism by the sight of a bird of paradise in one of the Bayswater squares near which he lives. Whereas he addresses the Gissing brothers — as he addresses Edward Garnett in some previously published letters — merely by their surnames, the Ranee he addresses as `My dear'. She sends him a box of cigars ('I knew you had sent it and was inclined to cry'); she invites him to stay; she asks for advice on her own book, surely due for reissue, My Life in Sarawak. By then Hudson's wife has retreated into what he calls 'neurasthenia', and it easy to under- stand how, in his loneliness, he is attracted by this vivid, generous, courageous woman, whom he sees often and to whom he writes regularly.

Another correspondent from a world far removed from Hudson's own is Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. The two men were born within a year of each other — Blunt in 1840, Hudson in 1841 — and they died, in 1922, within a month of each other. Early in their correspondence, Hudson, who all his life was a champion of birds, writes to inform Blunt that he (Blunt) has been nominated for election as a Vice President of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Subsequently, we read letters begin- ning 'Many thanks for the pheasants', 'Many thanks for your gift of pheasants', 'Thank you for sending me pheasants.'

All in all, these letters, whether written by Hudson or by Gissing, cannot be ranked among the finest of their time. But inter- mittently their plain, dark-blue serge glints with the thread of some interesting revela- tion or arresting insight.