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Elspeth Huxley

Agriculturalist and writer

Agriculturalist and writer

There’s surprisingly little about Elspeth Huxley on the internet. Book reviews, the odd quote shared on Twitter, scholarly papers wrestling with her writings on colonialism. But search hard enough and a gem awaits in the BBC Archive. The prolific author and adventurer’s Radio 4 Desert Island Discs interview was recorded in 1981, a time when colonial nostalgia was running high and The Flame Trees of Thika, a TV drama series based on her acclaimed 1959 memoir depicting her childhood in East Africa, had debuted on the BBC to rave reviews.

Huxley was then in her 70s and sounds like she’s enjoying her moment in the spotlight with host Roy Plomey. She kicks off her musical selections with Cole Porter’s jaunty 1930s anthem, “Anything Goes”, whose wry, gossipy lyrics and rebellious spirit she identified with. She reveals that her expulsion, aged thirteen, from the strict Suffolk boarding school where she was sequestered during World War 1, was due to her interest in horse racing-and betting – she’d set up a book on that year’s Derby. “I did make rather a lot of money,” she recalls. “This wasn’t thought well of in a girls’ boarding school in those days… but anything goes!”

As a schoolgirl, Huxley was desperate to return to the relative freedom of Africa. She’d first arrived there aged six, a year after her parents – stoic, quick-witted Nellie and dreamy, impecunious Jos – bought a plot of land from an ex-Etonian crony. Her unconventional childhood saw her living in a grass hut, running wild with the animals, enduring her parents’ marital strains and never receiving a formal education – but it freed her from the strictures of the aristocratic society she was born into. When the war brought her family briefly back to Britain, she found it cold and austere. So she was overjoyed when the school authorities dispatched her back in disgrace to her parents’ coffee plantation.

Within five years, however, Huxley was desperate to escape what, aged eighteen, she now saw as a “cultural desert” with no real educational or career opportunities. While she failed to fulfil her dream of studying at Cambridge, left Africa in 1925 to read Agriculture at Reading. Despite returning regularly to visit her parents and research various books, she would never again call it home.

The one thread of Huxley’s rich life that Plomley doesn’t pull on in the Radio 4 interview is her life-long association with colonialism. Yet so deeply connected is her life and work with this problematic history, that on her death in 1997 the New York Times called her the “Chronicler of Colonial Kenya”. One can imagine her accepting this posthumous headline with typical good humour – viewing it, rightly, as recognition of her personal connection and expertise. And while her attitude to colonialism evolved during her lifetime, from apologist to acceptance of the need for independence, she remained convinced by the (now reviled) concept of the “civilising mission”.

It’s undoubtedly this association which has led to Huxley’s oeuvre – 42 books, including ten works of fiction and 29 non-fiction books, as well as thousands of pamphlets and articles – being undervalued by the literary establishment. Snobbishness may also have played a part, since much of her works are deemed “popular”, including crime novels, journalism for titles as diverse as Punch and Woman’s Own, travelogues and popular biography of figures like Scott of the Antarctic and Florence Nightingale. Her dislike of networking didn’t help. “By my own choice, I have been a country dweller and have been milking cows and feeding pigs when, had I been trying to make my mark in the literary world, I should have been attending cocktail parties and inviting reviewers, radio and TV producers and literary agents to lunch,” she wrote in 1988, in response to an admirer enquiring why she remained in the shadows.

Gervas Huxley, cousin of Aldous, and thirteen years her senior, was her husband and constant companion. They met when he was her boss as head of publicity at the Empire Marketing Board, a colonial spin machine that promoted the products of Commonwealth countries. Elspeth was assistant press officer, a job that gave her the basics in journalism, but was forced to quit after their marriage, since married women were prohibited from working in the civil service.

What followed was a rather blissful period in which the pair travelled the world together, thanks to Gervas’ new job as chief commissioner of the Ceylon Association, in charge of boosting global demand for tea. The challenges of early air travel included planes stopping frequently for fuel, speeds never exceeding 100 miles per hour and one of their pilots crash-landing in the bush. In Europe, it was easier to take trains and boats because planes couldn’t get high enough to fly over the Alps.

Huxley had been commissioned to write a biography of Lord Delamere, one of the first white settlers, so when Gervas’ first assignment was to visit Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), she detoured to Kenya for research. Delamere was a prominent, eccentric figure who advocated for white self-rule for the colonists, and Elspeth’s sympathies were still with them, as the title reveals: White Man’s Country: Lord Delamere and the Making of Kenya (1935). Although largely well received, its apologism for white settlers drew criticism from left-wing publications likes the New Statesman. Years later, when Elspeth’s views had evolved, she claimed the title referred to the moderate temperatures of Kenya’s highlands.

When the couple’s wanderlust abated they settled in the Wiltshire countryside in 1938, in a seventeenth century farm called Woodfolds, which became their base for the next three decades. Always energetic, Elspeth returned with a number of successful crime novels to her name. “People used to play bridge a lot on boats,” she told Plomley, “but it was rather boring. So I took to writing crime stories instead as a way of passing time.”

Her 1939 novel Red Strangers is the first evidence of a shift in Elspeth’s views on Empire and propelled her into the mainstream as a voice on Africa. The novel follows four generations of a Kikuyu family, starting before the arrival of the British in East Africa. The “red strangers” of the title are the sunburnt Europeans who impose their strange culture and customs on the Africans. Reprinted in 1990, with a foreword by Richard Dawkins – who described it as “gripping, moving, historically and anthropologically illuminating, humanistically mind-opening” – it is an affectionate and faithful portrait of the Kikuyu, and shows her growing awareness of the absurdity and injustice of colonial rule.

“It is Elspeth Huxley’s extraordinary achievement to immerse her readers so thoroughly in Kikuyu ways and thought that, when the British finally appear on the scene, everything about them seems to us alien, occasionally downright ridiculous, though usually to be viewed with indulgent tolerance,” wrote Dawkins.

Huxley spent several months living among the tribe during her research and observed their customs close up. But Macmillan, the first publisher she sent the manuscript to, insisted on significant cuts before publication, including a graphic description of female circumcision. Huxley was outraged by the order, which came from future prime minister Harold MacMillan, working for the family firm at the time. “It was indeed a happy day for me when our future Prime Minister couldn’t take clitoridectomy,” Huxley recalled. The book was published by Chatto & Windus instead.

The outbreak of World War II coincided with a brief stint in the Women’s Land Army – following in her mother’s footsteps – and the start of her foray into broadcasting. She reported on the home front for the BBC, as well as penning scripts for Africa-related projects. Never one for make-up or fancy clothes, she preferred radio to TV. Then, in 1943, she landed a plumb new role as media liaison at the Colonial Office, but had to resign when she discovered she was pregnant with their only child, Charles.

Huxley’s perception of herself as “a jobbing writer” was both a strength and weakness, since her parents’ life-long money problems had instilled a need to be constantly working. She continued to publish an average of one book a year as she grew older, on top of various columns on subjects as diverse as immigration and gardening. (Her farming experience, for example, made her a prescient public commentator on the causes of mad cow disease.) But Africa always drew her back. Whenever she felt she had finally thrown it off, she’d be swept under its spell again. This dichotomy continued to the end of her life, when in a final act of love and grief she published the letters her late mother had written to her, every week without fail. The correspondence spans 40 years and provides a fascinating insight into daily lives of the white settlers in east Africa, as well as painting a portrait of a pioneering woman who was every bit as unconventional as her daughter.

Huxley’s final Africa book was published in 1991 – six years before she died. Nine Faces of Kenya is an anthology of literary musings by the likes of Hemingway and Churchill, covering everything from settlers and wars to hunting, legends and poetry. Elspeth struggled to finish it, and you sense in her preface that she was seeking, finally, to tie together the threads of her conflicting feelings about land and Empire.

“I hope that the visitor will find something in these pages to remind him of a land of great beauty, beguilement, harshness and infinite variety; the native in the wider sense something to interest, entertain and even amuse. As Henry James observed – though he was thinking of cats and monkeys: ‘all human life is there.’”

As a chronicler of colonial Kenya, Elspeth Huxley is unsurpassed. Despite the desire she mentioned on Desert Island Discs to not be “typecast… forever writing about Africa” it is in her lyrical depictions of colonial life, in all its complexities, that her talent shines most brightly.

Serena Kutchinsky is a freelance writer and editor who has held senior roles at The Sunday Times and BBC News. She is currently working on a book about how her father came to make the world’s largest jewelled egg

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December 2022, People

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