Oh, Mountain Jim with his tawny curls and ruined life – we’ll get to him later.
First, a caveat. This book is a collection of letters written in 1873 by Bird to her sister back in England, and in reading it, I asked myself whether it was right to be critiquing letters in the same breath as literature. But as they were published in her lifetime, and as she was sending in articles to be published in various newspapers, it seems obvious she may have made changes to make things suitable for an audience, even if that audience was originally of one.
A great deal of the novel is concerned with painting a picture of the Rockies, and Bird displays and deploys some of the staples of Victorian sentiment – most notably following after the Romantic (capital r) notions of the sublime. mountains appear ghastly, air is rarefied, gorges of ‘singular majesty’. Nature in places seems to imitate art in the arrangements of glades. There are ‘lawns’ in high meadows beneath the castellated buffs. Pages and pages of pines and shivering aspen and lakes turning orange as the sun sets. Despite the relentlessness of the magnificence of things and the inevitable linear side of any travelogue , the narrative, such as it is, is compelling. This is mostly due to the human players, and to Isabella bird’s insights and sometimes infuriating reticence on the conditions of life on the frontier.
A big question mark hanging over the text was Bird’s attitude towards the Native Americans, a tribe of which she sees on the train at the start of her journey: “They are perfect savages, without any aptitude for even aboriginal civilisation, and are altogether the most degraded of the ill-fated tribes which are dying out before the white races.” Oh, dear, I thought. Well, it’s important not to whitewash the views of those of the past, however repellent we now find them to be, so I stuck with Ms Bird and hoped I would not be subject to too many tirades. Later on in the text, she redeemed herself a little in going into an impassioned discussion of the horrendous treatment the Native Americans received at the hands of the government and the settlers, and even at the hands of one of her riding companions (a man who shot and killed many many people as a life long act of revenge against the stealing of his sister) though of course all the while there is the sense of a very limited sense of social justice – no calls for anything to be done to fix the system, other than noting it is corrupt. The savages are still savage, but how terrible that they must suffer and die. Luckily, in most of the letters she is well into mountain territory, so her concerns are elsewhere.
Mostly in Estes Park, where she meets the oh-so-Romantic/Gothic archetype, “Mountain” Jim Nugent. They find a deep connection, despite the fact that he is a known murderer and prone to fits of temper and drunkenness. In a low moment, he confesses some of his crimes to her, and tells her how he came from a well-off family, only to run away at eighteen after falling in love with a woman he was apparently too shy to talk to, and how it has ended with him, blinded in one eye by a bear attack, living alone in a cottage with his loyal dog ‘Ring’, but still finding time to harass the neighbours when the drink is in him:
“”Now you see a man who has made a devil of himself! Lost! Lost! Lost! I believe in God. I’ve given Him no choice but to put me with ‘the devil and his angel’. I’m afraid to die. You’ve stirred the better nature in me too late. I can’t change.” […] He made me promise to keep one or two things secret whether he were living or dead, and I promised, for I had no choice; but they come between me and the sunshine sometimes, and I wake at night to think of them. I wish I had been spared the regret and excitement of that afternoon. A less ungovernable nature would never have spoken as he did, nor told me what he did; but his proud, fierce soul all poured itself out then, with hatred and self-loathing, blood on his hands and murder in his heart, though even then he could not be altogether other than a gentleman, or altogether divest himself of fascination, even when so tempestuously revealing the darkest points of his character.”
Oh, and she mentions how handsome he is, despite his scars, on several occasions. Neither Rochester nor Heathcliff ever really appealed to me, but despite Isabella Bird being as level-headed, practical and independent as they come, well, you can guess the rest. And you’ll have to guess. She never divulges more than that they talked and took long horse rides together. Perhaps that’s all that happened. There in her reticence is her awareness of an audience. Occasionally the text is so stripped down as to read like a bit of text from the Bible – events happen, but the inner world of Isabella Bird is entirely held back, and so many readings are possible. It is only in extreme moments, such as when she is being insulted by her hosts at a cabin, that she paints in enough that you can see how she really feels.
Her many descriptions of the interiors of the places in which she stays add an interesting contrast to the wide plains and the high passes. She rarely fails to say what her sleeping arrangements were like, what the women were doing, how they were doing – were they well-off immigrants struggling to adapt to the isolation and hard grind of daily life? Were they stout widows, were they unbelievably coarse and chatty? Bird makes herself useful in domestic situations, even while she prefers rounding up cattle and doing farm work, reveling in, but in a tongue in cheek way, the complements of men who mistook her for a man, or said she was as good as a man. She knows she is as good as a man, an excellent rider and able to navigate trackless paths in storms that have shut down all other transportation, and even if her eyelids are getting stuck together from the intense cold, she can pry them open enough to take in the glories, eeriness, loneliness of the mountain wilderness, in order that she can write them down later.
Perhaps one day they’ll make a film of this portion of her life – certainly enough material for it. Now I get to imagine who they would cast in what role…