The British Empire Library

Elspeth Huxley - A Biography

by C S Nicholls

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Mary Bull (Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford)
Elspeth Huxley was the major commentator on Kenyan affairs for the British public from the publication of While Man's Country: Lord Delamere and the Making of Kenya in 1935 to that of Nine Faces of Kenya in 1990. Christine Nicholls' biography gives a full picture of this outstanding woman, of wide interests and unbounding energy. The bibliography lists forty-eight books that she wrote, besides innumerable articles, radio scripts and live broadcasts. It was her ability to write with such fluency, providing vivid descriptions of people and places, and also with a wry sense of humour, that made her work so appealing. Her radio broadcasts, especially on the BBC's The Critics from 1950 to 1961, made her well known in Britain, while her semi-fictional accounts of her childhood in the settler community of Kenya before and after World War I, The Flame Trees of Thika (1959) and The Mottled Lizzard (1962), were widely read - especially after they were filmed for television in 1981.

However, it was her knowledge and judgement of African, primarily Kenyan, affairs that were her chief claim to fame. She left Kenya in 1924 to study agriculture at Reading University and, having married Gervas Huxley in 1931, did not live in Africa again. But she visited almost every year except during the war when she worked for the BBC and at the Colonial Office. These visits had the dual aims of research and to stay with and assist her parents, Jos and Nellie Grant, farming near Njoro. The success of the biography of Lord Delamere, which expanded to two volumes giving the history of white settlement in Kenya, decided Elspeth to make her living by writing. The novel, Red Strangers (1939), attempted to understand the African reaction to British rule and settlement, and during the war Elspeth engaged in a correspondence with Margery Perham, published as Race and Politics in Kenya (1944), in which she supported a devolution of responsibility to settlers, while Perham argued for continuing Colonial Office control to safeguard the interests of Africans. Both agreed that there had been lack of clear British policy in Kenya, and that more rapid progress should be made to train Africans for self-government.

Elspeth's visits to Kenya after the war resulted in an official report on reading matter for Africans, which led to the establishment of the East Africa Literature Bureau in 1948, and a major account of contemporary East Africa, The Sorcerer's Apprentice (1948) - which was viewed by Kenya settlers, who had previously considered her their champion, as dangerously radical. Her travelogue of West Africa, Four Guineas (1954), described emerging African nationalism and the problems of the path to independence. In 1960 she served on the Monckton Commission on the future of the Central African Federation. After the Mau Mau uprising she wrote two major books, A New Earth (1960) and Forks and Hope (1964). Of the latter, Nicholls comments on '.... its intelligent analysis. Again, the penetrating eye and poet's pen had been put to good use, to create a contemporary commentary which reads beautifully.' (p344).

This is a comprehensive work which bring to life a most stimulating character, but also the history of Kenya during British rule.

British Empire Book
C S Nicholls
Harper Collins Publishers
0 00 257165 X


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