I don't know why I'm endlessly fascinated with colonial Kenya and the
people who left Europe to start a new life there in the early 1900s. My
interest has been given a boost by this month's release of a novel
about Beryl Markham, who chalked up several "first woman to"
accomplishments in her life. Whether you find the actions, attitudes,
and lifestyle of the British ex-pats and the Happy Valley set
horrifying, fascinating, or cringe-worthy, here are a dozen ways to
transport yourself to the Africa of a century ago.
Beryl Markham grew up in colonial Kenya, earning a reputation as an excellent horse trainer and as an accomplished pilot. Circling the Sun by Paula McLain (Ballantine, 2015) is a well-researched don't-miss account of Markham's life. As I wrote for Readerly, "Told from Markham’s perspective, the novel resembles a well-crafted memoir, taking readers on a roller-coaster adventure of incredible successes and deep sorrows." For Beryl Markham's story in her own words, pick up West with the Night (North Point Press, 2013). This autobiography is a very readable account of her African childhood and how she came to be the first woman to fly solo west across the Atlantic Ocean. Nonfiction fans might be more drawn to Mary S. Lovell's Straight on Till Morning (Norton, 2011), which has been proclaimed Markham's "definitive biography."
Karen Blixen & Elspeth Huxley
Most people have heard of Karen Blixen from the movie named after her memoir Out of Africa (Penguin, 2011). Although the movie has a strong focus on Blixen's romantic relationships, the author wrote about her love of the country and its people, her thoughts on white colonialism, and her struggles to make her coffee farm at "the foot of the Ngong Hills" a success. Elspeth Huxley grew up in Kenya on her family's coffee plantation. Among her memoirs are The Flame Trees of Thika (Penguin 2000), which focuses on her childhood and the difficulties British expats had in adjusting to the rigors of Africa, and Out in the Midday Sun (Vintage Digital, 2011), which is set in the years between the wars and includes her experiences as a young adult, returning to Africa after college.
The Happy Valley Crowd
Even if you're not familiar with the names of the British expats who lived in Kenya a hundred years ago, you may have heard stories of the bohemian, jazz-age lifestyle of the Happy Valley set. These are the men and woman known for their lavish parties, heavy drinking, and liberal attitudes about sex. One of the more recent entries in the colonial Kenya canon is Juliet Barnes's The Ghosts of Happy Valley (Aurum, 2013). Part travel memoir, part archaeology, and part social commentary, this is the story of Barnes's journey to find the remaining traces of the people who gave Kenya its scandalous reputation. The Bolter by Frances Osborne (Knopf, 2009) shines the spotlight on Idina Sackville, one of the free-loving ringleaders of the Happy Valley crowd. Relying on letters, diaries, and family stories, Osborne gives us an unvarnished look in to the world of her great-grandmother. In Child of Happy Valley, Juanita Carberry (Random House, 1999) gives us a darker view of life in colonial Kenya. As the adults played, their children were largely ignored, all the while bearing witness to their parents' behavior.
Colonial Days on the Screen
If you need a visual introduction to the Happy Valley lifestyle, you should start with White Mischief (1987), which is all about the infamous murder of the earl of Errol. The investigation of this case showed the world the intimate details of Happy Valley socializing. Many of the major players are portrayed in this film, including a young Juanita Carberry. Do I even need to tell you about Out of Africa (1985)? This film shows colonial Kenya from the eyes of author Karen Blixen. Beryl Markham's character is given the name Felicity in the movie. Huxley's memoir The Flame Trees of Thika (1981) was made into a 7-part miniseries and depicts the author's childhood experiences up to about World War I. The scenery alone is worth watching.