Today on Project Gutenberg #24

Today on Project Gutenberg we have…

Kashmir by Sir Francis Edward Younghusband, illustrated by Major E. Molyneux

This is an unusual one. We have a non-fiction book today, an entry into the time-honored genre of travel literature. The subject, in case you couldn’t tell from the title, is the region of Kashmir. Where and what is Kashmir, you ask? It’s the northernmost region of the Indian subcontinent, bordering India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and China. The scope of today’s book doesn’t encompass all of what we would today consider Kashmir. It’s focused specifically on the Kashmir Valley. Or, as the author puts it, “the world-renowned valley of Kashmir, a saucer-shaped vale with a length of 84 miles, a breadth of 20 to 25 miles, and a mean height of 5600 feet above sea-level, set in the very heart of the Himalaya, and corresponding in latitude to Damascus, to Fez in Morocco, and to South Carolina” (page 2).

The author in question is a guy named Francis Edward Younghusband, a British Army officer and Victorian/Edwardian-era explorer. Reading his Wikipedia page is one hell of a trip. To make a very long story short, he was a key player in the so-called “Great Game” between Britain and Russia for control of Central/South Asia, he led the infamous 1904 British “expedition” to Tibet that got several thousand Tibetans killed, he became president of the Royal Geographical Society and he possibly became the world’s first hippie. Pretty much in that order.

In 1909, the illustrator and future fashion designer Edward Molyneux asked Younghusband to collaborate with him on a project. Molyneux had made a series of paintings depicting the Kashmir Valley, and he wanted Younghusband to write a book about the region in which these paintings could be printed. Younghusband was stationed in Kashmir at the time, so he knew the place well enough to write about its scenery and history. And he admired the the place deeply enough to want to write about it, as we can see from this book.

Just from looking at the table of contents, we can see that Younghusband is insanely thorough when it comes to this subject. There are fourteen chapters in the book, starting with the author’s reminiscences about his own travels and spreading out into discussions of the region’s history, people and government. But it’s the natural beauty of the Kashmir Valley that captures Younghusband’s attention the most. He’s downright enraptured by every garden and mountain and forest trail that he sees, and that admiration really comes through in his writing:

From it one looks down through the wealth of forest on to the valley below, intersected with streams and water-channels, dotted over with wooded villages, and covered with rice-fields of emerald green; on to the great river winding along the length of the valley to the Wular Lake at its western end; on to the glinting roofs of Srinagar; on to the snowy range on the far side-valley; and, finally, on to Nanga Parbat itself.

And never for two days together is this glorious panorama exactly the same. One day the valley will be filled with a sea of rolling clouds through which gleams of sunshine light up the brilliant green of the rice-fields below. Above the billowy sea of clouds long level lines of mist will float along the opposite mountain-sides. Above these again will rise the great mountains looking inconceivably high. And above all will soar Nanga Parbat, looking at sunset like a pearly island rising from an ocean of ruddy light.

On another day there will be not a cloud in the sky. The whole scene will be bathed in a bluey haze. Through the many vistas cut in the forest the eye will be carried to the foot-hills sloping gradually towards the river, to the little clumps of pine wood, the village clusters of walnut, pear, and mulberry, the fields of rice and maize, to the silvery reaches of the Jhelum, winding from the Wular Lake to Baramula, to the purply blue of the distant mountains, then on to the bluey white of Nanga Parbat, sharply defined, yet in colour nearly merging into the azure of the sky, and showing out in all the greater beauty that we see it framed by the dark and graceful pines in which we stand.

Pages 103-104

These descriptions mesh nicely with Edward Molyneux’s gorgeous illustrations, of which there are seventy in total. I would say it’s worth pulling up a copy of the book just to flip or scroll through it and look at the pictures. The colors are strong and often vibrant, and the scenes themselves are highly detailed. There’s a genuine sense of scope in the large landscape scenes and activity in the scenes depicting households or communities. They’re impressive to look at, and they offer a much-needed reprieve from some of Younghusband’s weirder tangents.

“From the Circular Road, Gulmarg.” Page 104. Painted by Edward Molyneux.

Younghusband constantly reminds the reader that he is a product of late Victorian Britain and that he is approaching this topic with certain biases as a result. He’s not doing this intentionally, mind you. He just does it by being weird and kind of obnoxious. For example, there’s a chapter in this book called “Sport” which is literally just about shooting the local animals and also a metric crapload of ducks (not his terminology). And for all his gushing about the natural environment, he doesn’t seem to have much regard for the locals. At best, they’re a little bit strange but reasonably admirable and attractive. At worst, “he is dirty, untidy, and slipshod, and both men and women wear the most unbecoming clothing, without either shape, grace, or colour” (page 130). Oh, and they’re cowards, apparently.

So yeah, this book is definitely quite dated by modern standards, and that combined with how long and description-heavy it is will probably turn away most readers. If you ask me, the main draw here is Edward Molyneux’s pictures rather than the writing itself. You could easily spend a good deal of time just looking through all the illustrations. And if you’re into travel literature, especially from this time period, maybe you’ll be interested in the actual book as well.

And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!

— Dana

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