Left of right

Elspeth Huxley: a biography

C S Nicholls <em>HarperCollins, 497pp, £20</em>

ISBN 000257165X

When it comes to catching the vexed, loving feelings of white settlers towards Africa, it is the women who have done it best. From Olive Schreiner through Karen Blixen to Doris Lessing and Muriel Spark in their early years, it is the watchful, sidelined girls who have served as the surest guides to the domestic politics of the scrubby farm, as well as to the wide, unpeopled spaces beyond. Elspeth Huxley belongs on that roll of honour. The Flame Trees of Thika - her autobiographical novel of 1959 - was one of a trio of books (the others being The Story of an African Farm and Out of Africa) that opened up the continent in ways that seemed strange to a readership raised on Kipling and Henty. Huxley's Africa has little to do with drinks at sundown, big-game hunting or deeds of derring-do. Instead, there are mules, malaria, blinding light, natives both cruel and kind, and terrible, terrible smells.

There is also a lot of love. Although she lived in writerly exile from Africa all her adult life, Elspeth Huxley remained entranced and defined by it until her death in 1997. Most of her books, and much of her prodigious journalism, were seeded from her childhood experiences on her parents' coffee farm at Thika. The family was that familiar expatriate mix of posh and poor: Huxley's formidable mother was the granddaughter of a duke; her father was the hopeless scion of grand, landowning Scots. Armed with £5,000 and a Swahili phrase book that told you how to say "the drunken Europeans have killed the cook", they left England in 1912 and bought 500 acres from a man propping up a bar in Nairobi.

Huxley, an only child, seems to have taken after her get-on-with-it mother; by the age of 14, she was being published regularly in the East African press (mostly on the subject of the local hunt, an incongruous scarlet-coated affair that went after steinbok and jackal). So, too, her own marriage to Gervas Huxley, at the age of 22, mimicked the unromantic dynamic of her mother's. Although Huxley, cousin of the more famous Aldous and Julian, did not share his father-in-law's fondness for drink, he was more a vacant space than a commanding presence. Happy to potter on their Cotswold farm, Huxley kept house while his restless wife continued to travel back and forth to Africa in search of material for her books. Like her mother, Elspeth had only one child.

Her expertise on Africa was particularly useful at a time when thoughtful Britons were struggling to adapt to the break-up of empire. Described by the BBC, for whom she broadcast regularly, as being "on the left of right", Huxley was a flexible liberal who started out by advocating partnership between blacks and whites in Kenya before moving to the melancholy conclusion (it meant that her mother would have to leave her beloved farm) that there would be no peace until the settlers left.

One feels that C S Nicholls tries hard throughout her book not to endorse, uncritically, Huxley's "liberal" views, which, especially in their early incarnations, were complacent and naive. But she should not have to: if post-colonialism is to be more than a buzzword, it must create a space where even unfashionable attitudes and experiences receive a proper and sensitive hearing.

Nicholls is a distinguished former editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. Her life of Elspeth Huxley displays all the classic virtues of that particular way of writing. She is a wonderfully well-informed authority about the externals of the life - the dates, the events, the who and the where of it all. As a native of East Africa, she sees the landscape as Huxley would have seen it, and can describe it almost as well. Where she is less good is in entering into Huxley's interior life. This may well be because it was inaccessible even to Huxley herself, who believed in slapping on a smile and pushing on with things. There is the problem, too, of a lack of sources, especially as Huxley's letters home to Kenya have not survived (her mother destroyed each one a week after it was received, on the grounds that they caused clutter).

There are a few tantalising clues here and there that Huxley's inner life was darker and more complicated than she wanted anyone to know. What, for instance, is one to make of her being expelled from her English boarding school for running a betting syndicate on horses? She was pathologically mean: she refused to employ a literary agent, perhaps because she couldn't bear to hand over the usual 15 per cent, a decision that ended up costing her money (she accepted £5,000 for the television rights to The Flame Trees of Thika when they were worth at least three times that amount). One has just the sneakiest sense, too, that Huxley was more partial to gin and whisky than was strictly good for her. Nicholls is far too scrupulous a scholar to speculate on such matters, but her readers will almost certainly not be so high-minded.

Kathryn Hughes is a biographer and critic

This article first appeared in the 06 May 2002 issue of the New Statesman, The man who would be king