Christopher Ondaatje looks at the life of a chronicler of colonial Africa.
I wonder why The Oxford Companion to English Literature does not include Elspeth Huxley. It must be an accident of omission because, after 42 books and thousands of pamphlets and articles, this exceptional woman was a celebrated writer as well as a broadcaster, journalist, conservationist, political thinker, magistrate and government adviser. Best known as a prolific chronicler of colonial Kenya, she was internationally recognised as a sage interpreter of African affairs.
This is a biography by an author who is not only full of admiration for her subject but who grew up in East Africa and knew many of the people in Huxley's circle. C. S. Nicholls has researched her subject well and quotes liberally from private papers and letters, including those from Huxley's formidable mother, Nellie Grant. The portrait she paints is fascinating and gives deep insight into British colonial Africa.
In fact, Huxley spent only eight years of her childhood in colonial Kenya "during a time of little doubt about the rightness of the British Empire and its assumed civilising mission". In 1925, she left Africa for university, first in England and then in America. She made England her home, though returned to Kenya almost every year until she died in 1997. Although tempted, she never lived in Africa again.
Huxley's parents, Jos and Nellie Grant, arrived in Mombasa in 1912. Kenya had been in British hands for only 17 years. Elspeth, the Grants' only child, was not with them and, contrary to what she says in The Flame Trees of Thika , she did not join her parents until they had established their farm. Ever a fabricator of get-rich-quick projects, Huxley's father, tempted by profits to be made from coffee, sisal, cattle and sheep farming, planned to make his fortune in the new colony. Their first land was at Chania Bridge (later called Thika) 30 miles north of Nairobi, and their first priority was to plant an avenue of flame trees and to break up and prepare the ground for coffee planting.
Elspeth, aged six, arrived in December 1913, complete with governess and maid. Nellie paid little attention to her child, who pottered about, watching her mother work on the house and garden, and planting coffee. The planning and supervision was Nellie's but the labouring was done by African employees. Huxley observed and absorbed a world of hard work tempered by a great deal of frivolity. Later, Huxley described the British as "steeped in complacency and arrogance... it is hard to credit what a good opinion we had of ourselves in those days. There was the empire, and there were we at the heart and centre of the world. No one questioned our position. Everyone else was a barbarian, more or less."
There is much of this early colonial life in Nicholls's book, including startling revelations. The power of the white community was enhanced by members of titled families such as Lord Delamere, Lord Francis Scott, and the brothers Galbraith and Berkeley Cole, sons of the earl of Enniskillen, the second of whom lived with his Somali mistress and was reputed to have the best Goan cook in the country. Denys Finch Hatton, with his slow crooked smile was, despite his baldness, very attractive to women. Huxley visited Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa , and found a fascinating, small dark woman with a beaky nose and make-up all awry, full of magnetism and restless energy, like a benign witch. Blixen was later condemned by her husband's friends for suggesting to a biographer that she had acquired syphilis from her husband, Bror (who did not seem to pass the disease on to his other partners). Huxley maintained that she inherited it from her father or, more likely, acquired it from her Somali servant, Farah. She was also convinced that "Jock" Delves Broughton did kill Joss Erroll - the sensational Happy Valley murder that so shocked Kenya in 1941. Broughton, whose wife was having an affair with Erroll, was tried for the crime but acquitted by a jury of local men, most of whose wives had been seduced by Erroll.
Huxley's upbringing was unconventional; she was "almost treated as a parcel, being passed from hand to hand". There were financial problems for her parents, and a strained personal relationship that never improved. Huxley became absorbed in relationships with African people, and with Kenya itself. She wrote: "It is a country that always holds the unexpected in store, that rouses high hopes and seldom satisfies them, and yet charms the bitterness out of disappointment. Whatever the secret of this charm, it draws back to the country men and women who have left and inspires many of those who have adopted Kenya as their home with an almost passionate concern for its future."
Elspeth married Gervase Huxley in 1931 and quickly immersed herself in her first book, a biography of Hugh Cholmondeley, 3rd baron Delamere, the pioneer farmer in Kenya who had died that year. She returned in 1937 to a Kenya very different from the one she had left eight years before. The finished biography, unwisely called White Man's Country , was really a history of the early days of Kenya, with Lord Delamere playing a leading role. Reviews were both hostile and laudatory but the work was praised in Kenya. She embarked on Red Strangers , the story of three Kikuyu brothers who react in three different ways to the coming of Europeans. Although a novel, most of the related incidents were apparently true. Certainly, Huxley's ideas had moved a considerable distance from those in White Man's Country . The book was sent to Macmillan again, but Harold Macmillan agreed to publish it only with considerable cuts, including a graphic description of female circumcision. Huxley refused and the book was published by Chatto and Windus in June 1939. Huxley remembered: "It was indeed a happy day for me where our future prime minister couldn't take clitoridectomy."
There were crime novels too: Murder at Government House , Murder on Safari and Death of an Aryan . The first of these was sent to Hollywood, and Huxley speculated: "Do you think there might be a chance of really making some money out of this writing racket at last?" But she blew her chance when she was invited to write the film script for her friend Joy Adamson's Born Free , for which she had already written the introduction. She apparently "smelt a rat". The film was an enormous success.
Huxley's wartime development as a broadcaster for the BBC is covered in detail. Attitudes towards the peoples of the empire were changing at the BBC, as were Huxley's to some extent. There is an interesting exchange of letters between her and Margery Perham, then reader in colonial administration at Oxford, showing opposed views of colonial dominance. Perham proclaimed that "Africa should fundamentally be for black Africans, though whites could help them along until they were ready to take control", while Huxley thought that "white settlers were there for good or ill, and no amount of hostility would cause them to vanish into thin air". This appeared as Race and Politics in Kenya (1944), with a second edition in 1956, indicating how both women's views had been modified enormously by events.
As a chronicler of colonial Kenya, Huxley was criticised for writing mainly about the whites, though this was actually far from the case with Red Strangers , The Sorcerer's Apprentice , A New Earth and Forks and Hope . Nevertheless, as Nicholls points out, "it was the whites she knew the best". There is little doubt that with The Flame Trees of Thika she had written a book to rank with Karen Blixen's Out of Africa . Both are sometimes condemned as "liberal apologist(s) for white settlement" but they do truly reflect a way of life in a colonial era that had already vanished.
This biography is for all those who cannot get Africa out of their systems. What Huxley wrote on Africa will always be remembered, even if her writing on other parts of the world is forgotten. Thank God she never cut her emotional bonds to Kenya. After reading this excellent biography, I am spurred to read her African books again - and I am sure many others will be too.
Christopher Ondaatje is a council member, Royal Geographical Society, and author of Journey to the Source of the Nile .
Elspeth Huxley: A Biography
Author - C. S. Nicholls
ISBN - 000 257165 X
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £20.00
Pages - 482