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Too Close to the Sun: The Audacious Life and…

Too Close to the Sun: The Audacious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton (2006)

by Sara Wheeler

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“This is an ordinary story of big guns and small planes, princes from England and sultans from Zanzibar, roulette, a famous divorce case, a Welsh castle and a Gilbertine priority, marauding lions, syphilis, bankruptcy, self-destruction, and the tragedy of the human heart.”

Ok so the reason for reading this book?

Sara Wheeler.

I’ve been wanting to read something by Sara Wheeler again (and have probably waited too long to do so!), since I read – and loved - Terra Incognita.

So I went about this in a roundabout way, after reading Beryl Markham’s fantastic West with the Night (some thoughts on this later), and deciding to see what else there was to read about that era of colonial Africa. She does mention Denys Finch Hatton in the book.

So this Denys Finch Hatton. Who was he? Besides being played by Robert Redford in the film version that is.

He was immortalised in Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa (a book I read too long ago to remember – time for a library loot!), he was a loyal Etonian (such that years after he graduated, he took a date there), a game hunter, an aviator, an aristocrat, a charmer and lover of many women. And there has apparently been quite the fascination about him:

“His mysterious otherness caught my attention: he appeared as the eternal wanderer. I quickly discovered that he left few traces, and that I was at the end of a long line of women searching for the real Denys. But the real Denys had escaped into legend.”

Despite the fact that he never quite made it – in terms of what we measure as success and achievements, that is:

“Chief among these was the gap between character and accomplishment, being and doing. Almost everyone who knew Denys spoke of his greatness, yet he did little. I wondered if we are tyrannised by the need for achievement.”

Karen Blixen/Tania/Isak Dinesen loved Denys with all her heart, and wrote to her brother:

“that such a person as Denys does exist, something I have indeed guessed at before, but hardly dared to believe, and that I have been lucky enough to meet him in this life and been so close to him – even though there have been long periods of missing him in between – compensates for everything else in the world, and other things cease to have any significance.”

Unfortunately, while DFH obviously cared for her and he often stayed with her and had such wonderful times together, he doesn’t quite love her as she does him, as he isn’t the sort of man to be tied down to one woman. Sadly he later shacks up for a while with Karen’s good friend, Beryl Markham.

One of the most interesting aspects of this book for me was the insights into Markham’s character. It showed me how much can be omitted, twisted in a book, it made me realise how unreliable some narrators can be, even if it is supposedly their own life story (there are questions about just who wrote Markham’s West with the Night). In Too Close to the Sun, she is so different from what I had read about her in her own book, where she talked about her love for horses, flying, and Africa. And not at all about her men, and there were plenty, for she was “nearly six feet tall, slim-hipped and long-fingered, although she was not classically beautiful – she had a strong chin and toothy jaw – she was handsome; her Nordic looks have often been described as Garboesque. She gave the impression that she cared little for anything on two legs, and men found her nonchalance attractive”. And there you have it, perhaps she really didn’t care much for anything on two legs, which is why she didn’t write much about them in her own book.

Anyway, Too Close to the Sun was a great read, and I had expected nothing less from Sara Wheeler. I suppose one could argue that DFH’s life itself was great fodder, true, but the amount of research it took, her way of piecing together the puzzle, and the way she brings him, and East Africa, to life in her writing, is what makes this a great read. I mean, I never expected to be interested in reading about the war in East Africa, but it was so different from the European front:

“It wasn’t the troglodyte world of the trenches, but it was another kind of hell. The war in East Africa – virtually unknown to the outside world – was, in its safari through purgatory, a negative metaphor for the Kenyan paradise of the epoch handed down in literature and myth.”

This book was a fascinating insight into this man, the woman who devoted herself to him, and what is perhaps his true love – East Africa.

This review was first posted on my blog Olduvai Reads
( )
  RealLifeReading | Jan 19, 2016 |
I picked up this book after finishing Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen's OUT OF AFRICA and Beryl Markham's WEST WITH THE NIGHT. When I found out that a biography about Denys Finch-Hatton had just been published, I thought it was too good to be true - he is so fascinating, and so mysterious, in Blixen and Markham's memoirs that it's hard to read them without wanting to learn more.

It turns out it WAS too good to be true.

Finch-Hatton left little to no record of his own life. There are no diaries and very, very few letters. My burning questions were: What is the interior world of a charming, dashing adventurer like? What is he thinking while he's busy making life brighter, sweeter, and more exciting for others? Wheeler has no more idea than anyone else. Finch-Hatton has left no record of what his life was like, from his own point of view.

Aside from Blixen and Markham, whose portraits of Finch-Hatton are already well known, his nearest and dearest didn't sit down to describe his character, his thoughts or hidden sides. I recognized huge sections of OUT OF AFRICA and WEST WITH THE NIGHT rephrased here, with additional comments pulled from research into Blixen or Markham's life, plumped up with (generally fascinating) cultural and historical context and (generally very clever) anecdotes and asides. But this was an enhanced reading of Blixen or Markham's life, nothing new, and at a real distance from the actual subject of this biography.

I learned a lot about a particular moment in the history of British East Africa. I learned some things that I didn't know about Blixen and Markham and, yes, even a few things that I didn't know about Denys Finch-Hatton - a bit about his family history, where he went to school, where he was during the war and how he became involved in big game hunting and conservation.

Wheeler writes beautifully; she has an exquisite style. She clearly hopes that if she can plump up her scanty material with lots of dazzling imagery, we won't notice that this lengthy description of the English countryside or that lengthy description of the Serengeti actually isn't telling us anything at all about Denys Finch-Hatton. This felt like sleight of hand to me, like a trick, and I resented her for it. I want to see gorgeous style used to make good, solid research come to life. I don't want to see it poorly masking the author's failure to gather enough material to justify a book.

In short, even though I generally enjoyed reading TOO CLOSE TO THE SUN, I disliked it. ( )
  MlleEhreen | Sep 20, 2013 |
Beautiful lush prose makes this a delight to read but it is of little value as a historical biography because so little material survives about its subject and this author is too infatuated with her subject. Wheeler is so enamoured of Finch Hatton that she excuses his manifest flaws and is relentless in her implicit denigration of Karen Blixen just as if she were a jealous competitor for his love.

The book is littered with the author's overt opinions and she is not afraid to demonstrate staggering ignorance. Early in one chapter she admits to being baffled by an automobile advertisement that promotes the provision of door handles inside and out; apparently she is unaware that automobile coachwork derived from horsedrawn carriages where internal handles were redundant because a servant would open the carriage doors for the passengers. This is not something that I imagine every writer to know but the author of a biography rooted in Edwardian England could easily find the answer to such a puzzle.

Ignorance of technical details is no impediment to the successful evocation of past society, however. Wheeler conveys the privileged world of Eton and the English aristocracy in Britain and Africa with deft fluency. She has read widely in published and unpublished sources and there are extensive references in the endnotes. Furthermore, she neatly separates unsubstantiated material facts from rumours by the use of footnotes even though she shows no hesitation in creating vivid imaginative descriptions of scenes that were unobserved by any but the undocumenting participants.

It seems that between Errol Trzebinski and Sara Wheeler there is no chance for the interested reader to get a balanced picture of this charming man who blinds his biographers to his weaknesses. ( )
  TheoClarke | Sep 3, 2010 |
There's nothing more satisfying than reading about British colonialists running amok in the tropics. Denys Finch Hatttan was one of these - the archetypal younger son who journied to Kenya to satisfy his wonderlust, seek independence from a class bound English society and, hopefully, make his fortune.

He succeeded in finding adventure, but never quite broke his ties with the aristocracy and certainly never made money. He remains a romantic figure based on his relationships with Karen Blixen (AKA Isak Dineson), Beryl Markham and other "colorful" British expatriots in Kenya during the first decades of the twentieth century as well as his portrayal in Dineson's fiction & the film "Out of Africa."

Wheeler tries to make Finch Hatten a more serious (important?) character than he really was. Her book bogs down in too much detail of his World War I exploits and his various doomed efforts at financial success. It's most interesting when discussing his relationship with Blixon & the other women in his life.

This was an interesting read, but a superficial one. ( )
1 vote etxgardener | Dec 30, 2009 |
Denys Finch Hatton is primarily known as Karen Blixen's ( Out Of Africa) lover. Wheeler, however, takes this historical nonentity and writes a compelling biography. Hatton's life exemplifies the transition of Britain from Victorian to modern times and its impact on the nobility. Finch Hatton is a charmer, but he is not shallow. He is a "man's man" , an intellectual aesthete who is equally at home on the polo field, the battlefield or hunting big game. Incapable of developing a lasting committment to women he died young in a plane crash leaving virtually no traces of the life he had led. Wheeler also does a good job of chronicling the comic and largely unknown sideshow of WWI fought between the Brits and Germans on the Kenyan border.. One battle began with machine gun fire disturbing some bee hives; the resulting bee swarms forced retreat on both sides. During the first year of the war, more troops were lost to wild animals than to enemy action. I bought this book to gain more insight into Blixen's life. It turned out to be much better than I had expected. ( )
  nemoman | Dec 25, 2007 |
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Legendary for his good looks, his charm, and his prowess as a soldier, lover, and hunter, Denys Finch Hatton was born to an old aristocratic family. He became a hero without trying at Eton and Oxford. In 1910, searching for novelty and danger, Finch Hatton arrived in British East Africa and fell in love--with a continent, with a landscape, with a way of life that was about to change forever, as the outbreak of World War I engulfed the region. Finch Hatton was a captain when he met Karen Blixen in Nairobi and embarked on one of the great love affairs of the twentieth century. Biographer Wheeler teases out truth from fiction in the liaison that Blixen immortalized in Out of Africa. Ever restless, Finch Hatton became an expert bush pilot, leading to his affair with aviatrix Beryl Markham--but Markham was no more able to hold him than Blixen had been.--From publisher description.… (more)

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