Thursday, 14 February 2008

Broken Hearts, Rocky Mountains

The Times, 14 February

It is a story with all the ingredients of a tragic Valentine's Day tale. She was the intrepid traveller, whose endless explorations were honoured when she was elected the first woman fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He was the one-eyed renegade, “fascinating yet so terrible” who was shot dead within a year of their unlikely passion blooming on the highest peak of the Rocky Mountains.

This doomed love affair between Isabella Bird and “one-eyed Jim” Nugent has been revealed by researchers at the National Library of Scotland from letters which have been held in the John Murray Archive for more than 100 years. It is a true-life romance which mingles all the sexual repression of the Victorian era with a seam of raw emotion to transcend the ages. It could have been the bodice-ripper to end all bodice-rippers had not the two protagonists been so impeccably behaved.

The daughter of a clergyman, Isabella was born in Boroughbridge, Yorkshire, in 1831. Advised for the good of her health to travel, she took her doctor at his word and spent 50 years roaming the world, writing voluminous letters to her sister Henrietta, who lived on the isle of Mull. Edited versions of this correspondence were an instant hit when they were published and Isabella’s books helped fund her adventures.

In one of her letters – some of which are on display in the National Library in Edinburgh - she describes her first encounter with Jim in October 1873, as she rode 800 miles on horseback through the Rocky Mountains.

“In the narrowest part of St Vrain canyon I saw a fearful object … and I wanted to turn back fearing either he was not sober or in an ‘ugly fit’. However … when [Jim] got up to us my fears diminished. He is a most extraordinary man. His appearance was frightful but as soon as he spoke he was fascinating with his gently cosy manner low musical voice and slight Irish brogue … his poor disfigured face literally beamed with nice kindly feeling.”

Jim – who had a log cabin at nearby Muggins Gulch - was famous locally for his bouts of drunkenness, his acts of bravery and his love of poetry. He was reputed to have been a brutal “bushwhacker” in Kansas during the Civil War and lost his eye in a fight with a bear.

By the time of the couple’s encounter, Isabella was no less formidable and was determined to conquer the 14,255 ft Long’s Peak. With Jim as her guide, she set off with two male companions. Soon the men complained that Isabella – in her thick tweed skirt and bloomers – was a “dangerous encumbrance”. Jim was having none of that.

“’Jim’ dragged me up, like a bale of goods, by sheer force of muscle,” wrote Isabella, until they reached the summit. But it was after their descent that her guide made his declaration. For good taste’s sake, Isabella’s account – which revealed her own buttoned-up emotions - was omitted when her journals were first published.

“Then came a terrible revelation … he was attached to me and it was killing him. It began on Longs Peak he said. I was terrified. It made me shake all over and even cry. He is a man whom any woman might love but no sane woman would marry. Nor did he ask me to marry him, he knew enough for that. A less ungovernable nature would never have said a word but his dark proud fierce soul all came out then. I believe for the moment he hated me and scorned himself, though he could not even then be otherwise than a gentleman.

“My heart dissolves with pity for him and his dark, lost, self ruined life. He is so loveable and fascinating yet so terrible. I could not bear to think of him last night out in the snow neither eating nor sleeping, mad lost wretched hopeless. It is really terrible. For 5 minutes at the camping ground on Longs Peak his manner was such that I thought this possible, but I put it away as egregious vanity unpardonable in a woman of 40 and afterwards he explained his emotion satisfactorily, and never showed a trace of it again. I miss him very much. He is so charming and can talk on all subjects and has real genius. It takes peace away.”

When she returned to Britain, Isabella was pursued by an Edinburgh doctor, John Bishop, and the couple married in 1880. But following her husband’s death six years later, she set off as a missionary to India, travelling on to Baghdad and Tehran. In the 1890s, in her 60s, she journeyed along the Yangtze and Han rivers in China and Korea before her death in Edinburgh in 1904.

One-eyed Jim was not so fortunate. The year after his encounter with Isabella, he was shot in a drunken dispute over hunting rights near his shack. When she heard of his fate, Isabella claimed she had known only “pity and yearning” for her erstwhile companion, and begged her sister, “don’t let anyone think I was in love with Mountain Jim”. By then, Henrietta had probably come to her own conclusions.

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