February 22, 2018

Elspeth Huxley's Flame Trees of Thika

On this day in 1997 Elspeth Huxley died. Huxley began a lifetime of journalism at the age of fourteen -- polo correspondent for an East African newspaper -- and wrote some thirty books in many genres, but her fame today comes from one best-seller, The Flame Trees of Thika. This autobiographical novel and its sequel, The Mottled Lizard, recount Huxley's youth in Kenya, on "a bit of El Dorado my father had been fortunate enough to buy in the bar of the Norfolk hotel from a man wearing an Old Etonian tie." The tale comes out of the same Africa as Isak Dinesen's (Karen Blixen) -- the colonial coffee plantations in the Nairobi area, among Maasai and Kikuyu -- but it is told through a young girl's eyes. This sometimes means, as Nadine Gordimer claims of the book, that we read "not about politics or race" but "the happiness and joy of a life that was essentially of Africa." Sometimes it does not, as when the young narrator is exposed to this sort of picnic talk:
    "Surely that's the whole point of our being here," Tilly remarked. "We may have a sticky passage ourselves, but when we've knocked a bit of civilization into them, all this dirt and disease and superstition will go and they'll live like decent people for the first time in their history." . . . "That is not the whole point of my being here," Alec Wilson put in, during a pause that followed. "I didn't come to civilize anyone. I came to escape from the slavery one has at home if one doesn't inherit anything. I mean to make a fortune if I can. Then I shall go home and spend it. If that helps to civilize anyone I shall be delighted, but surprised."
Exposure to a different sort of coming-of-age moment comes on a trip to find a murderer in a local village:
    All sorts of people had by now crowded round the fig-tree to look at us. Tilly and Lettice had been provided with cushions on which they sat gracefully, their riding-skirts spread round them, in the shade. Many of the young Kikuyu men, who smelt powerfully and richly, though not unpleasantly, of rancid fat and red earth, wore short leather cloaks which failed to hide their genitals. . . .
    "Perhaps we should not have brought the ladies on this expedition," [Hereward] murmured to Alec; but Tilly overheard.
    "Perhaps we should not have brought the gentlemen," she suggested, indicating a number of well-greased, shaven-headed girls who had nothing on but very small triangles and strings of beads. . . .
Elspeth Grant married into the famous Huxleys -- husband Gervas was cousin to Aldous and Julian -- and shared the family concern with frontiers. The Flame Trees of Thika was published in 1959, about the same time that Aldous began to write about mind-altering drugs, and exactly a century since Darwin's Origin of Species was first published and so famously defended by "Darwin's Bulldog," grandfather T. H. Huxley.

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