British author Sara Wheeler sets a daunting task for herself in her latest book, Too Close to the Sun: The Audacious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton to wrest her subject from the enduring portrait created by his longtime lover Karen Blixen in Out of Africa (not to mention Robert Redford's cinematic portrayal). Wheeler succeeds, at least to some extent, presenting an in-depth profile of the legendary denizen of British East Africa (now Kenya) while also capturing the essence of life in the colony during the first quarter of the 20th century, contrasting and reflecting the world as depicted by Blixen.
Intriguingly aloof, devastatingly charming, equally comfortable facing down charging game, discussing literature or enjoying fine wine (which he always seemed to have on hand), Denys Finch Hatton seems the perfect embodiment of the age of gentleman explorers. Nineteenth-century explorers had brought Africa into the drawing room, Wheeler writes, and after their Eton and Oxford educations, scions of wealthy families traipsed out to the latest colonial hotspot seeking adventure or as social and tax changes left the aristocracy short on capital renewed fortunes. Finch Hatton followed family protocol in doing both, falling in love with Africa on his first visit in 1910, at the age of 23. Before finding his life's work as a hunter and pilot, he tried his hand at dairy farming and became a decorated officer during the African campaign in the First World War.
Though we think of Finch Hatton as the consummate expatriate, he in fact returned to England often and always managed to be in the middle of things. He attended the coronation of King George V during one visit and went to parties with the Prince of Wales (the future Duke of Windsor), who he would later lead on safari, during another. He saw performances by Josephine Baker in Paris and Nijinsky in London. He befriended Kermit Roosevelt (Teddy's son) en route to Mesopotamia.
Naturally, many Finch Hatton associates familiar to readers of Blixen's works also figure in Too Close to the Sun: Berkeley Cole, Lord Delamere and Bror Blixen (Karen's husband). Aviatrix Beryl Markham is also in the book. For most of us, however, the most fascinating member of Finch Hatton's circle is Karen Blixen herself. Tania [Blixen] was part of Denys's deepening contact with Kenya, and her lyrical response to the landscape and the people attracted him, Wheeler writes of their intense, yet fragile relationship.
In her introduction, Wheeler says she started out disliking Blixen, but made peace with her over the course of her research and travels. It is a result of those travels that Wheeler is able to set scenes so wonderfully a talent she shares with Blixen whether she's describing the atmosphere of Finch Hatton's favorite childhood home, a war-weary London or striking Kenyan sunsets. Putting her subject into context is an important aspect of Too Close to the Sun, because though he always lived life on his own terms, part of the allure of Finch Hatton will always be the intersection of time and place.
MiChelle Jones made a pilgrimage to Rung-stedlund, Karen Blixen's family home near Copenhagen, in 2001.