His enduring allure

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A shortcut to immortality can usually be achieved by becoming the muse of a great writer. No one who has

read “Out of Africa,” that alluring book by the Danish writer Isak Dinesen (whose real name was Karen Blixen), can forget Denys Finch-Hatton, the great love of her life. Her present of immortality to the dashing, aristocratic Englishman who died in the crash of a plane he was piloting in 1931 was truly the gift that kept on giving, as generation after generation discovered him in her much-read magnum opus.

And even those who are not readers encountered Finch-Hatton in the hit 1980s movie “Out of Africa” — and still do thanks to the magic of DVD. Hollywood being Hollywood, however, the quintessentially English aristocrat was played by Robert Redford, who admittedly had the innate charm and looks to match the legendary attractiveness of the original, to say nothing of a fine head of hair that would have been the envy of one who lost all his very early on in youth! Finch-Hatton certainly disproves the theory that bald man never won fair lady!

The son of the 13th Earl of Winchilsea (who was also the 8th Earl of Nottingham), Finch-Hatton was born in 1887 and educated at Eton and Oxford. Although an athlete and universally acknowledged by his peers to be a star, he did not distinguish himself academically at either institution.

At Eton he failed to qualify for Balliol, the prestigious Oxford college to which he aspired, and he had to settle for the lesser Brasenose. There he did get a degree, unlike so many Etonians and their ilk who went to Oxford, but it was a 4th Class one, a qualification so undistinguished that the university eventually abolished it as unworthy of being an Oxford B.A.

His attractively crooked smile, general good looks and charm made him irresistible to debutantes, and he became as much of a star in London ballrooms as he had been on the playing fields of Eton and had not been in the classrooms of Oxford University. While he was still at Eton, his mother had written: “Denys is over 6 foot now and a wonderfully good-looking boy… . I do hope [he] won’t be spoilt — but it is bad for boys to be so good-looking.” His was definitely a face and physique that not only a mother could love.

Restless and looking for adventure, Africa called him when he was still in his early twenties and after a short sojourn in South Africa, he found his way to British East Africa, as Kenya was then known. This may well have saved his life, since when war came in 1914, most of his Eton and Oxford friends perished in the trenches of Flanders and France.

Not that Finch-Hatton lacked patriotism and courage: On the outbreak of hostilities, he volunteered immediately for the armed forces, but since he was in Kenya, much of his fighting was done in East Africa, where despite its dangers, the attrition rate for British officers was just not as high as it was on the European fronts. Situated as it was next to the large colony German East Africa (which comprised present day Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi), Kenya was the jumping off ground for the hard-won but eventually successful conquest of that German territory.

Finch-Hatton played a significant role in this theater of World War I and later in the successful campaign to drive the Turks out of Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). It was in Cairo, following the conquest of Mesopotamia, that he became a qualified military aviator. Flying would influence the rest of his life and eventually end it.

When Finch-Hatton met Karen Blixen, it was a classic coup de foudre for them both. Theirs was a tempestuous, passionate love affair, complete with complaisant husband — the Blixens’ was an open marriage as were those of many in their set in Kenya — and another woman, in this case the aviatrix/writer Beryl Markham.

“Too Close to the Sun” provides a full account of the affair’s ups and downs, tempests and respites. Blixen does not come across as all that sympathetic: What does it say about a woman that she felt it worthwhile to contract syphilis from Bror Blixen because in marrying him she became a titled baroness?

Still, you have to feel that in leaving her for the hard-boiled colonial memsahib Beryl Markham, Finch-Hatton deserves to have been told something like what Prince Philip reportedly told his eldest son: You’d have to be insane to leave someone like Diana for someone like Camilla! Still, as Pascal so trenchantly observed four centuries ago, the heart has its reasons which reason cannot know.

Sara Wheeler, the author of this biography, is not the kind of writer who can get under the skin of her characters, much less show us what’s really in their hearts. She does far too much telling in general in this book and too little showing. She is forever telling the reader what a great athlete Finch-Hatton is, but you’d like to have some details about what he actually excelled at doing.

And this failing is evident in other aspects of his life as well. Still, Finch-Hatton’s charms do manage to come through her at times leaden text, and with a colorful cast of characters, including an earlier Prince of Wales (the one who later became Edward VIII and then Duke of Windsor), “Too Close to the Sun” has enough to interest readers, particularly those who know the doomed aviator from “Out of Africa” and long to find out more about him.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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