Had she been alive today, Kenyan writer Elspeth Josceline Huxley would have celebrated her birthday last month. Born on July 23, 1907 as an only child, she died aged 89 on January 10, 1997 in England.
Described by some as a “witty and energetic journalist,” she is best known as the author of The Flame Trees of Thika, her 1959 work of autobiographical fiction based on memories of her childhood in Kenya.
That book and another one, The Mottled Lizard, saw her vilified by some – including Ngugi wa Thiong’o – as a racist.
However, when discussing contemporary Kenyan literature, the contributions of authors of European extraction like Huxley, who have over the decades written on or based their books on Kenya, simply cannot be ignored.
We can also not gloss over the fact that their seminal works placed Kenya on the global literary map, while also paving the way for a truly rainbow literary scene in both colonial and post-colonial Kenya.
In fact, despite the fierce vilification, the most prominent among these writers, Karen Blixen — whose pen name was Isak Dinesen — and Huxley herself won global literary eminence.
Karen Blixen had aristocratic connections and became famous for, among other titles, such Kenya-based works as Out of Africa.
Regarding The Flame Trees of Thika, some Kenyans, Ngugi included, have denounced it as an apologia for colonial rule. That notwithstanding, it became an immensely popular bestseller, and in 1981 was made into a television series in Britain.
During the next year, the series was shown on public television in the US, where some of Huxley’s fiercest critics now live in purported exile.
MISPLACED ACCUSATIONS OF RACISM
Clearly, Huxley had her admirers, mostly on account of The Flame Trees of Thika, which portrayed Africa through the eyes of a colonial era European child. As for the picture it drew, it could hardly have been different, and accusations of racism appear misplaced, given the child’s essentially subjective portrayal of the world as she saw it then.
Moreover, whereas Karen Blixen was wealthy and associated with the colonial settlers, including the notorious Happy Valley crowd, Huxley’s life in Kenya was very different. Admittedly an advocate of colonialism early in life, she later vociferously called for the independence of African countries.
In fact, unknown to many, Huxley at one time served as a government advisor on African education, and to her enduring credit in 1948 she helped to establish the East African Literature Bureau, which published many books by Africans.
Viewed retrospectively, Karen Blixen and Elspeth Huxley produced works that were, logically, informed by the era they lived in, as well as by their specific personal situations.
Karen Blixen, for instance, had a particularly troubled marital life. She was married to Bror von Blixen-Finecke, her cousin and a notorious philanderer. His often outrageous exploits left his wife with syphilis before he eventually drifted away from the marriage altogether.
After her abandonment by Bror, she fell in love with Denys Finch Hatton, “a tall, witty aristocrat with a deep-seated resistance to commitment”. Their affair, which lasted from 1918 until his death in 1931, clearly took its toll on Blixen.
Very fragile emotionally, she “sometimes took to her bed for a fortnight after (Finch Hatton) left.” Despite having lived in Kenya from 1914 to 1931, it was only after returning to Denmark that she adapted the pseudonym Isak Dinesen and wrote about that period of her life.
According to her biographers, her tales were made up of specific events during her African sojourn, including accounts of her interactions with friends and with servants to whom she was reportedly very close.
That she viewed them through her aristocratic eyes does not necessarily make her a racist. It was most probably a class thing, and not made better by her personal misery, and she could hardly have related to her employees and servants in a different way. In fact aristocrats anywhere have been derided for treating their servants despicably, even when they are of the same race.
Apart from Karen Blixen and Elspeth Huxley, there were lesser writers like Beryl Markham. Renowned as the first person to fly the Atlantic solo from England to North America, she is best known as the author of West with the Night.
UNUSUAL ROMANTIC ADVENTURES
A woman given to unusual romantic adventures, before she died in the mid-1980s, Markham went through three husbands and several lovers, including — according to some published reports — Prince Henry of England.
Author, pilot, horse trainer and adventurer, she is also said to have lured Finch Hatton away from Karen Blixen.
All that aside, although West With the Night was first published in 1942, it only became an international bestseller when it was reissued in 1983, whereupon it made it to the New York Times best-seller list. It remained there for 40 weeks.
As for racism, there was little evidence of it in her life, and in fact she is said to have spent most of her time as a young child exploring and hunting with her black playmates, most of them ethnic Nandis. One of her childhood African friends, Kibii, reportedly remained her lifelong friend.
Another renowned creative force, famed photographer Mirella Ricciardi, of Vanishing Africa fame, grew up first with a typically condescending ambivalence about the Africans who were all around her. Like Blixen before her, she was blindly romantic, seeing Africa as a rustic place to be enjoyed by the rich and carefree.
“I had always been a white African, a product of the colonial system I had been raised in,” she wrote in her memoirs. “I considered the Africans as my servants, not human beings like myself.”
But alas, after her troubled marriage to Italian adventurer Lorenzo Ricciardi collapsed, she ended up falling in love with an illiterate coastal man called Shahibu, who spoke no English, whom she had hired as her assistant during a photographic expedition at the Kenyan coast.
In the course of time, she wrote later, “the relationship took an unexpected turn when he became my lover.
He was 16 years my junior.” Moreover, the encounter with Shahibu, she recalled, “banished the taint of racial discrimination which afflicted almost every white person living in Africa then and with which I had certainly grown up.”
But although she ended up “looking at him, not as a black man, but simply as a man”, their torrid affair ended tragically after her African fisherman lover “had abandoned his Muslim teachings and turned to drink.” He also resorted to debauchery with many white tourist women.