Huxley, Elspeth (1907–1997)

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Huxley, Elspeth (1907–1997)

Prolific English writer of nonfiction and fiction who is especially noted for her widely acclaimed books about her experiences in, and the history of, East Africa during the 20th century. Born Elspeth Josceline Grant on July 23, 1907, in London, England; died in Tetbury, England, in January 1997; daughter of Josceline Grant (an army major and farmer) and Eleanor Lillian (Grosvenor) Grant; attended Reading University, Diploma in Agriculture, 1927; attended Cornell University, 1927–28; married Gervas Huxley (a tea commissioner and writer), on December 12, 1931 (died 1971); children: Charles Grant Huxley (b. February 1944).

Parents moved to Kenya (1912); joined them (1913); returned to England (1915), sent away to boarding school at Aldeburgh in Suffolk; returned to Kenya (1919); attended Reading University, England (1925–27); studied at Cornell University (1928); worked as assistant press officer for Empire Marketing board, London, England (1929–32); author (1935–97); worked for British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC), London, England, in new department (1941–43), member of general advisory council (1952–59), broadcaster of BBC's "The Critics" program, and on African matters; became a justice of the peace for Wiltshire (1946–77); awarded Commander, Order of the British Empire (1960); served as member, Monckton Advisory Commission on Central Africa (1959–60).

Selected publications:

White Man's Country: Lord Delamere and the Making of Kenya (1935); Murder on Safari (1938); Red Strangers (1939); Atlantic Ordeal: The Story of Mary Cornish (1942); English Women (1942); Settlers of Kenya (1948); The Sorcerer's Apprentice: A Journey through East Africa (1948); The Walled City (1949); Four Guineas: A Journey through West Africa (1954); The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood (1959); On the Edge of the Rift: Memories of Kenya (1962); Love Among the Daughters: Memories of the Twenties in England and America (1968); Livingstone and His African Journeys (1974); Florence Nightingale (1975); Scott of the Antarctic (1977); Nellie: Letters from Africa (1980); Out in the Midday Sun: My Kenya (1985); Nine Faces of Kenya (1990).

In January 1933, at age 26, Elspeth Huxley traveled alone by sea from Marseilles, France, to Mombasa, Kenya. The trip took 19 days. At Port Sudan in the Red Sea, the ship anchored in the harbor and passengers were permitted to go ashore to ride camels and stretch their legs. Unfortunately for Huxley, her hat had blown overboard, and going outside in the tropics without a hat was like visiting the North Pole without a parka. On board was Dr. Roland Burkitt, a surgeon from Ireland who had set up the first private practice in 1911 in Nairobi, Kenya, and who believed ultra-violet rays from the tropical sun to be lethal. The armor against these rays included a wide-brimmed, double-felt sun helmet, known as a terai. In her autobiographical work, Out in the Midday Sun, written at age 78, Huxley describes how Burkitt reacted to her intentions of going out for a stroll: "[He] was horrified. In his powerful brogue he forecast the direst disasters should I venture hatless ashore—dementia praecox, cardiac failure, renal occlusion, possibly even flat feet. Actinic rays softened the brain, rotted the guts and sapped the moral fibre." She went anyway. On her return to the boat, she met Burkitt and rubbed in the fact that she had suffered no ill effects. Huxley "never wore a sunhat in Africa again."

Elspeth Huxley's entire life was punctuated by breaks with convention. Like the wild animals of Africa, with whom she spent a good portion of her childhood, she was restless, energetic, and peripatetic. This is not surprising considering the family Huxley was born into in London in 1907. Her mother Nellie Grosvenor Grant and father Josceline Grant, though both members of the aristocracy, did not live the stodgy, manorial life that has come to be associated with the English elite. Josceline was a wandering adventurer. He had served with The Royal Scots in the Boer War in South Africa and had lost much of his inherited fortune in investments in a diamond mine in Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique) and in developing a car he and a partner had invented. Josceline loved cars and had participated in the Paris to Madrid race where his chain-driven Mercedes overturned.

Huxley's mother Nellie was also an adventuring entrepreneur who went into business with Trudie Denman , buying, training and selling ponies. They broke the wild ponies by strapping a children's pony pannier to the pony's back and placing a child on top. At three years old, Huxley became the chosen guinea pig. In a letter, Nellie describes the pony and Huxley tromping about the training ground: "The pair careered round and round, Elspeth chuckling with delight and poor Nanny Newport rushing and screaming round the perimeter."

Whether [Huxley] is detailing the past and present of friends and relations, describing the death of a fox or Prohibition picnic orgies, she is funny, bawdy, serious, nostalgic and always entertaining.

—Anne Fremantle

When Huxley was five, her parents decided to try their luck in an exciting "new" country that was then the talk of London. British East Africa (now Kenya) had recently been opened up by an "adventurous" railway line. Big game hunting in the interior had already become legendary, and hunters returned to England with stories of wide-open terrain still in pristine condition. The high altitude of much of the territory produced a climate inviting to northern Europeans.

Huxley did not join her parents in Africa for nearly a year. Having stayed behind in England with relatives, she was not to follow until her parents were somewhat established on the 500 acres they had bought 30 miles north of Nairobi near a town later called Thika. Huxley would have none of this forced separation. At age five, she escaped from her nursery at night and set out for Africa with her seven-year-old cousin, Puk. The two collected the bread, butter and cake that Huxley had been saving in a tin beneath the roots of a yew tree, then bedded down for the night in a woods several fields away. A constable discovered them and carried Huxley under his arm back to the nursery.

Huxley's most famous book, The Flame Trees of Thika, written in 1959 and later turned into a seven-part "Masterpiece Theater" production airing in 1986, is a semi-autobiographical account of her early years in Africa. " The Flame Trees of Thika can well stand comparison with Isak Dinesen 's Out of Africa," wrote Charles Rolo in the Atlantic Monthly. Huxley's sequel, The Mottled Lizard (1962), picks up the story of Huxley's childhood in Africa. "If one lived to be a hundred," she wrote, "and watched the dawn break and the sun rise over the high veld of Africa every morning, one would never tire of it." Much of her life's work was shaped by these early experiences.

In 1914, the beginning of the Great War put an end to the blissful days in Kenya. Huxley's father joined the King's African Rifles and fought the Germans on several occasions along the border between Kenya and Tanganyika (now Tanzania). In December of that year, he left for England to rejoin his regiment, the Royal Scots. He was wounded in the Battle of Ypres in Belgium in November 1915. A month later, Elspeth and her mother left for England despite the risk of their boat being torpedoed by German submarines. Nellie spent her considerable energy running the Women's Land Army in Wessex while Elspeth was sent off to a girl's boarding school at Aldeburgh in Suffolk. After the freedom and warm climate of Africa, a winter in a boarding school on the coast of East Anglia, when war shortages made heating sources scarce, was like a prison sentence in Siberia. Huxley recalled times when food shortages made her so hungry she ate her toothpaste. During the war, the students watched a Zeppelin crash and burn near Felixstowe. A day or two later, when the school children visited the wreckage, some picked up pieces of the Zeppelin and later made them into brooches. Occasionally during the war, a girl would leave school in tears, having been told of the death of a brother or father. They would return after their brief mourning period and no mention of the loss was ever raised.

In 1919, her parents having already returned to Kenya, Huxley was still interned in Aldeburgh boarding school. Again she was determined to escape to Africa; by now, however, she was old enough to realize she could not do it on her own, so she resolved to make such a nuisance of herself at school that they would be glad to be rid of her. Already interested in horse racing, she set up a book of bets on the Derby. When the authorities found out she was collecting pennies from classmates, she was deemed a source of contamination to the other students and isolated in the sanatorium. Her parents brought Huxley back to Thika rather than find another boarding school. Huxley had won.

In Africa, the coffee plantation the Grants had developed from wild bush was running full gear. Huxley continued her education with lessons from her mother and father and any neighbors who could help. She spent much of her free time hunting in the bush with her .22 rifle. "I was at this time, I regret to say, very bloodthirsty," she writes in Nellie: Letters from Africa. "I shot, or shot at, small buck … wild pig … [and] once, I fear, at a cheetah." Later in life, Huxley renounced all hunting and only shot animals with a camera. She also became a fierce conservationist, joining the National Trust, the Royal Society for Protection of Birds, the World Wildlife Fund, the Rhino Rescue, the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society, and several other groups. In 1984, she collaborated with photographer Hugo van Lawick, ex-husband of Jane Goodall , on the book The Last Days in Eden, which records the wildlife of the Serengeti.

In 1922, Nellie Grant's lifelong friend, Trudie Denman, bought the family a 1,000-acre farm near Njoro in the breathtakingly beautiful Rift Valley, 100 miles northeast of Nairobi. Elspeth's father would die in a hospital near this farm 25 years later in 1947. Her mother would live on the farm for 43 years, struggling constantly to make it profitable. Huxley stayed in Kenya until 1925 when she returned to England to complete her education at Reading University, where she received a diploma in agriculture. She would not return to Africa and her parents' farm in the Rift Valley for eight years.

Following Reading, Huxley traveled to the United States where she attended a one-year course in agriculture at Cornell University. She writes perceptively about her college years and 1920s society in England and America in her book Love Among the Daughters, published in 1968. Her love of writing began at age 16 when she contributed articles to the East African Standard on polo matches. After Cornell, her first job in London was as a press officer for the Empire Marketing Board where she wrote articles for popular newspapers based on the results of recent scientific research.

In 1929, the onset of the Depression threatened her job, and, when she married Gervas Huxley in 1931, she was axed because of the recently instituted Marriage Bar that prohibited married women from serving in the civil service. Gervas Huxley, grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley and first cousin of Julian and Aldous Huxley, also worked for the Empire Marketing Board as head of the publicity division. In 1933, Gervas took a job as the chief commissioner with the Ceylon Association. With the price of tea falling due to over-production, he was put in charge of increasing world demand. His first assignment was a trip to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) off the coast of India. Elspeth had recently been commissioned to write Lord Delamere's biography and embarked with Gervas from London, but she headed to Kenya to continue her research. Delamere, who died in 1931, had lived for 30 years in Kenya and was one of the central figures in that country's development and government. Huxley's two-volume biography, White Man's Country: Lord Delamere and the Making of Kenya, was published in 1935 and remains one of her most important works.

Six months later, Gervas journeyed to Kenya after a side trip to South Africa and an airplane flight during which the pilot lost his way and had to crash-land in the bush. Undaunted, they continued on their scheduled return to London. Their flight, one of the first offered by Imperial Airways, went from Nairobi to Cairo, stopping frequently for fuel and never exceeding 100 miles per hour. They switched to a flying boat to cross the Mediterranean and then to a train in Italy; the planes of the time could not fly high enough to get over the Alps. The trip took six days, with the plane stopping at night.

This was the beginning of extensive travel for the two as Gervas was sent all over the world to begin advertising campaigns in an attempt to boost tea consumption. The couple lived out of a suitcase for the next five years. To pass the time on endless ocean voyages and to avoid playing bridge or shuffleboard, Huxley began writing mysteries. Three of them centered around the American detective Vachell and all took place in Africa. The second of these, Murder on Safari, prompted critic Will Cuppy of Books (May 29,1938) to call her "a dangerous rival to Agatha Cristie, Mignon G. Eberhart and other ornaments of the international crime choir." All the novels, though highly entertaining, also show an incisive understanding of African society and a concern with its predicament and future.

In 1937, Huxley returned to Africa to do research for her fictional account of a Kikuyu family dealing with the onslaught of Europeans moving to Africa. To learn all she could about the Kikuyu, an indigenous people living in Kenya, she and her mother lived in a Kikuyu village on the slopes of Mt. Kenya. At one point during their several-months' stay, the inviting challenge of the mountain, at 17,058 the tallest in Kenya, became too much for Huxley's mother. Together with porters, mother and daughter set off to see how high they could climb to see the view. They reached snow-line at about 16,000 feet and, due to inadequate equipment, decided to head back.

The Kikuyu book was published in 1939 as The Red Strangers.Edith Walton in The New York Times (September 10, 1939), describes the work as "a book so richly detailed in its picture of native customs and psychology that it has, despite its author's disclaimers, almost the value of an anthropological study." It is considered one of Huxley's finest works of fiction and brought to the Western world a view of Africa that had rarely been seen. The original publishers, Macmillan, who had also released Huxley's first book, White Man's Country, felt that a portion of Red Strangers, about female circumcision, was inappropriate for their readership, so they blithely rewrote it. Huxley found the rewrite so ludicrous that she withdrew the book and offered it to Chatto and Windus. They had no problems with the novel in its original form and would remain Huxley's chief publisher.

In 1938, the Huxleys bought a 17th-century farm called Woodfolds in north Wiltshire, England, which they modernized and moved into the following year. At the outbreak of World War II, Huxley became one of Wiltshire's organizers of the Woman's Land Army and in 1941 took a job with the BBC, which lasted until the end of 1943. She resigned from this post when she learned she was pregnant and, in February 1944, gave birth to her son Charles Grant, her only child. Though the Huxleys would continue to travel extensively, the farm in Wiltshire would be their permanent home for over three decades. Elspeth became involved in the small English community she had settled in and in 1946 became a justice of the peace for Wiltshire, a position she held for 31 years.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Huxley wrote prolifically, having her fiction and nonfiction books, primarily on Africa, published almost yearly. She was also busy writing for newspapers and magazines. Now an authority on Africa, in 1959 she became the only female member of the Monckton Advisory Commission on Central Africa, which was appointed by the British government to advise on the future of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. In 1962, she was awarded the CBE (Companion of the British Empire) for her services to the country.

In later years, Huxley lost none of the energy and enthusiasm of her youth. She lived in Oaksey and turned her inquiring mind toward that small English village. In 1976, she published a diary of a year in her life titled Gallipot Eyes: A Wiltshire Diary. In the 1960s and 1970s, her far-ranging interests led her to write books on philanthropists, immigrants in Britain, modern food production, travel in Australia and, of course, Africa, and explorers, such as Livingstone and His African Journeys and Scott of the Antarctic.

Nor were the 1980s a quiet decade, with the publication of Nellie: Letters from Africa and Out in the Midday Sun: My Kenya. In 1990, she published an anthology of writings about Kenya entitled Nine Faces of Kenya. The book combined two themes that helped structure and highlight Huxley's life—Africa and literature. She was an expert on the first; the second she created with genuine mastery.

sources:

Huxley, Elspeth. The Mottled Lizard. London: Chatto & Windus, 1962.

——. Nellie: Letters from Africa. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973.

——. Out in the Midday Sun. London: Chatto & Windus, 1985.

Huxley, Gervas. Both Hands. London: Chatto & Windus, 1970.

Rolo, Charles. Atlantic Monthly. Vol. XIII, no. 4. October 1959, p. 113.

suggested reading:

Huxley, Elspeth. The Flame Trees of Thika. London: Chatto & Windus, 1959.

Taylor Harper , freelance writer in travel and history, Amherst, Massachusetts