- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 6, 2003

ELSPETH HUXLEY: A BIOGRAPHY

By C.S. Nicholls

Thomas Dunne Books/ St. Martin’s, $35. 528 pages, Illus.

REVIEWED BY SMITH HEMPSTONE

If East Africa had a poet laureate, surely it was Elspeth Huxley. Her writings, including nearly 40 books, spanned the period from 1921 when she was a teenager until her death in 1997, included movie scripts, book reviews, radio broadcasts and biography. Nobody did it better. Not Ernest Hemingway, not Margery Perham, not Isak Dinesen, not Robert Ruark.

Now before somebody nominates me for the Jayson Blair award, let me confess: I knew in Kenya and liked Elspeth Huxley, her mother Nellie Grant and the latter’s pack of dachshunds. One does not forget an older writer (50, and at the height of her powers), who helped a young American (30) get his first book published.

Of course she was not perfect. She made some mistakes in her commentary. She underestimated the power of the African drive for independence. Eventually she accepted the destruction of the white farming sector, which provided 80 percent of Kenya’s agricultural exports, but she couldn’t convince herself it was a good idea. It wasn’t.

She was by nature a conservative populist, although her family tree boasted more dukes, barons, earls, lords, marquesses, viscounts and knights than a dog has fleas. Nellie and Jos Grant, Elspeth’s parents, were characters in their own right. Nellie was the hyperactive only daughter of Baron Stalbridge, a small ball of energy not much more than five feet tall who was never happier than when she was farming, ranching or working on some project. When she finally left Kenya for Portugal in 1963, she left half her 1,000 -acre Rift Valley farm to her eight senior African employees.

Jos, the son of a governor of Bombay and the grandson of another, was tall, handsome, good-natured and almost clinically incompetent. An officer in the Scots Guards, he was a good shot and a skilled horseman. When they came out to Kenya in 1912, they included in their baggage a Crossley automobile, several crates of champagne, saddlery, a French copy of a Chippendale dressing-table, an Escoffier cook book, knives and forks, two mattresses, a sofa, a couple of armchairs, assorted firearms, a crate containing a Speckled Sussex cock and five hens and 15,000 pounds in cash (little enough to purchase land, stock, fertilizer and tools).

Just before their departure, Nellie had spent several weeks with her Great-Aunt Cokie (Lady Octavia Shaw-Stewart) and her staff of 17 servants learning how to cook and manage a home. She never did quite get the hang of it, but she got by on her good humor and wit.

The Grants settled 32 miles north of Nairobi at Chania Bridge (now Thika) and began to clear the land for coffee. Elspeth joined her parents there on New Year’s Day 1914. She was six years old. For the first few months they lived in grass huts or tents, after which they built a stone house with two Dutch gables, wooden floors and a tin roof covered with thatch (it still stands). The Crossley went to pay part of the builder’s fees and the Grants planted 10,000 coffee bushes.

Both Nellie and Elspeth dearly loved the farm at Thika to which they returned from Britain at the end of World War I, Jos trailing along when his discharge came through. The first coffee crop had rotted in the field because there was no one to harvest it or get it to market. They had to start all over again with their capital exhausted.

As C.S. Nicholls (herself a white Kenyan) points out in “Elspeth Huxley: A Biography,” the Grants were not really dirt-poor.

They could live off the land, they just never had any money. When they had a bit, Jos managed to lose it in one of his hare-brained schemes. In dire emergencies, they were dependent on the charity of wealthy relatives and friends.

In both Kenya and England, Elspeth had an English nanny. Her mother educated her at home in Kenya, and there was an African assigned to teach her to ride and track, to instruct her about the land and its people.

While she enjoyed farm work, she wanted more of life than clod-busting. On Dec. 10, 1921, her first piece of writing on horse-racing, appeared in the East African Standard. She never stopped writing until the week before she died. She told her Aunt Vera: “My career is decided. I shall undoubtedly become a reporter.” Leaving Jos to fix up the Thika farm so it could be sold, Nellie and Elspeth crossed to Njoro on the west wall of the Rift Valley, where a friend made the older woman a gift of L5,000 to purchase a 1,000-acre farm. Eventually, Jos sold the Thika farm for L10,000, enough to clear the Grants’s overdraft.

In 1925, Elspeth left Kenya for England and Reading University, having been turned down by Cambridge because of a lamentable weakness in Latin. As her ship left Mombasa, she consoled herself with a Swahili proverb: he who has tasted honey will return to the honeypot. But it was not to be: she never again returned to live in Kenya, although she visited many times.

In 1926, Elspeth completed her two-year diploma course in agriculture at Reading and, thanks to the generosity of Aunt Blanche (Nellie’s sister), sailed for America and two years at Cornell University. When her student visa expired in 1928, she returned to England.

There she got a L5-a-week job as a press officer at the Empire Marketing Board and met and married (on Dec. 31, 1931) Gervas Huxley, cousin of the writer Aldous and the biologist Julian. Gervas was a nice man, perhaps too nice for his own good: Elspeth bullied him as her mother had bullied Jos; he died at 77 in 1971 after a moderately successful career as a writer, broadcaster and executive. They had one son, Charles, born in 1944.)

Fame and fortune finally came to Elspeth when she was 52 (in 1959) with the publication of “The Flame Trees of Thika,” a memoir covering two years of her early life in Kenya, which Elspeth described as “mainly a picture of a period and a fragment of a society … it is more fictional than perhaps you think.” It sold over 100,000 copies in hardback, was brought out in paperback by Penguin and made into a six-part TV series.

Elspeth kept right on scribbling, producing “A Thing to Love,” “The Red Rock Wilderness” and “No Easy Way,” all of which were well received. There followed “The Mottled Lizard” and “Forks and Hope.” Finally, Elspeth cut her personal ties to Kenya and moved Nellie, protesting all the way, to an orange quinta in the Algarve. Gervas died, and then Nellie and then there was no one left to write for and so she died in England in 1997 at the age of 90, leaving a gap unfilled.

Ms. Nicholls has done well in this, Elspeth Huxley’s first biography. There will be others.

Smith Hempstone is a former editor in chief of The Washington Times.

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