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June 01, 2006

Helping us to understand the continuing appeal of Out of Africa and Karen Blixen: Too Close To the Sun: The life and times of Denys Finch Hatton - Sara Wheeler

Posted by Richard D. North

Too Close To the Sun: The life and times of Denys Finch Hatton
by Sara Wheeler
Pp. 304. London: Jonathan Cape, 2006
Hardback, £18.99

Denys Finch Hatton, one of the most famous Big White Hunters of the later British Empire, is the second major subject of a woman who's already had the good sense to find Apsley Cherry-Garrard worth attention. The Antarctic explorer "Cherry" (like DFH, an old-Etonian) has always been credited with producing the best book on the dreadful place where he made his name. By all accounts, his biographer Sara Wheeler's own Terra Incognita - chronicling a spell with the US scientists there - is a fair match for his The Worst Journey in the World.

So Wheeler has solid credentials to write about Edwardians who wrestled with the wild, and who wrote about it. One might wonder why, then, she didn't write a biography of Karen Blixen, the woman who made her lover Denys Finch Hatton's name for him. It was Blixen, known to her friends as Tania, and to most of her readers as Isak Dinesen, whose Letters from Africa (published in 1978) and Out of Africa (published in 1936) became the 1985 Sidney Pollack film in which Meryl Streep surpassed herself, and in which Robert Redford's portrayal of Denys is surely his most seductive role.

The answer may be that Wheeler isn't crazy about Blixen: the Dane comes across as too self-absorbed - even too nutty - for Wheeler's taste. Blixen probably was what my posh grandmother used to call, "tiresome about the house". In the end, that was probably what Denys felt about her too. Still, it is a slight problem with Wheeler's book that Blixen leaps off the page as a character about whom we are learning a good deal that feels new and well-said, whilst Finch Hatton seems somehow to keep slipping away into the margins.

Wheeler tries manfully to flesh out this ghost. But she sometimes seems only impertinent, which is odd granted her own advertised scruples. She wrote rather a good New Statesman review of a biography of another of her heroes, Robert Byron, the travel writer who wrote well and tartly about Mouth Athos, the monastic "republic" in northern Greece. There she said biographers shouldn't use their subjects' first names: she disapproved of such "faux intimacy". She breaks her own rule with "Denys", but the bigger curiosity is that we can't achieve much acquaintance with him.

And here's a further difficulty with Wheeler's book. There are some very whizzy little sentences - some low-flying phrases - which carry quite a punch. But they take "faux intimacy" to a new level. How does Wheeler know that back in England, Denys sat in church:

watching the grey walls stained crimson and purple by the light….[etc].
And how did she know that Brits at war in Africa, when swimming, showed:
hard soldiers bodies breaking the dark surface and carving through the water as the dawning sun gilded their indolent guns on the bank.
Calm down dear, it's only a surmise, as Michael Winner might say. And then she intrudes wholesale: as Denys' feeling for Tania begins to wane, Wheeler tells us:
She knew in her heart that she had lost him, as one always does when one really has.
There's worse. She writes of Tania's understanding of how unequal their love was:
If only one could stop oneself falling in love, equipped with such knowledge. Why do we stake out our banana skins and ring them with converging arrows labelled, "Step Here?".
And yet this is a fine book. For a start, it makes very plain how people like Blixen and Finch Hatton were both like and unlike the "Happy Valley" world of White Mischief. Sure, their world was rich in crazy remittance men and various dudes (including English royalty) whose love affair with Africa might well be thought trivial. But it also included - and was more centred on - men like Lord Delamere (to take merely the most serious and famous of them). These were pioneers who - like Blixen, for a while - poured their health and money into the Kenyan soil.

Maybe Elspeth Huxley was absurd to call her 1935 book on Delamere, White Man's Country. As a waiter pointed out, cleaning up my breakfast in Nairobi's Jacaranda Hotel: Kenya certainly was not that. I stood up for her, but he wasn't convinced. Very late in her life, Huxley told me that from the start, white liberals loathed her views on the matter. But there was something wonderful in the European agricultural adventure in Africa, and the continent will only work well when plenty more whites have spent plenty more energy and talent finding out how to grow things there. Their role may be less than an emerging indigenous African one, but I rather doubt it.

Wheeler claims that Denys was a proto-conservationist, and yet she is never very solid about the problems people found with hunting. She notes that farmers and hunters alike wanted no controls over the killing, and were therefore opposed to Finch Hatton's demand for them. But we get no nearer to understanding what drove his anxieties. Was it concern for the individual animals (that is, a sort of welfarism), or for the populations involved (the more obviously conservationist ethic)?

Progress has always been chaperoned by bad blood,
she purrs at us, but we are left with the impression that it might have been the vulgarity of the people doing the mass slaughtering which got his goat.

We have no sense that Denys might have continued to crusade, had he not crashed his plane. And there is not much sense, either, that Denys understood that he was at the top end of the food chain of white men who were doing the damage to pristine Africa which he so much deplored. Like almost all the conservationist explorers and tourists who followed him, he was forever pressing deeper into the wild, and doing so with newer technology, the better to make Africa accessible to the idle rich. There is now a safari business ( bearing - borrowing - his name, and it advertises exactly the mix of grandness and simplicity which he adored, and to people even more common than those he clearly thought were Yahoos in his own time. Denys was a petty ordinary sort of snob. At least that's the impression we gain from the little we hear of his own voice.

He was only a half-hearted farmer. He flourished as a leader of safaris. But he was quick to see how photography might be as valuable as slaughter, and - whether he liked it or not - he was a pioneer of what would become tourism, and that makes him an early figure in what would become one of Africa's main and pitiably few invisible exports.

But these practicalities are not what draw one to the man. It is the elusive which matters with him, and Wheeler does lead us to it pretty well. Part of the interest in Denys Finch Hatton flows from his being very brave. Part of it is that he inspired affection from men and women who had some pretty fabulous characters to choose from. The people who admired him were tough, and lived amongst some of the most charismatic people of their or any age. That they felt honoured to breathe the same air as him, even whilst they knew that he wasn't likely to achieve very much, is a wonderful conundrum.

Wheeler is good on this important stuff. She is reaching back into an age when winning ways mattered much more than they do now - for good and ill. As it had effortlessly been at Eton, so it would be ever after. Even in the squalor of an African war (very well drawn here), Denys was much more influential than his role of ADC should have warranted. A fellow settler and soldier, one of many who seemed hopelessly in love with the man, wrote:

Such was his charm that I never heard a grumble at his ascendancy.
Wheeler's case is that his being so liked crippled his ambition: it's an entirely attractive, plausible and attractive notion.

But other qualities lurk in Wheeler's account. Finch Hatton was, in a wayward way, very cultured. He liked modern art and poetry. He was, in a very masculine way, prone to intense feeling. He was also, I am inclined to think, probably as mystical as an Arthur Rimbaud or Charles de Foucault. He liked to party and was certainly sociable at times, but he catches at us because we are free to speculate about his inner life - that life which both drew him to Blixen and meant that he spent much of his time out of her reach or anyone else's. People went to Africa filled with a romance about its capacity to entrance and terrify: hardly surprising if Finch Hatton came to symbolise all that. A farmer's wife noted his:

Clear steady eyes, with that distant horizons look one often saw in Kenya.
Very few people can so perfectly have fulfilled the dream, and even fewer died young enough to be pickled in wonderfulness.

Wheeler seems to get all that without banging on about it. In both Karen, near Nairobi, and Rungsted, near Copenhagen, Blixen has become the focus for pilgrimage. Far fewer people trek out to Denys' grave. But Wheeler has made it more explicable how crucial he is to her story: her romance with the mysterious Denys is a large part of why we are so interested in her.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world.

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