Too Close to the Sun by Sara Wheeler


This biography of Denys Finch Hatton is a thorough, even handed look at an amazing character.  Finch Hatton is best known as the love of Karen Blixen (pen name Isak Dinesen) who wrote Out of Africa.  He was played in the movie of that title by Robert Redford.  He was from an aristocratic family — the uncle known as the “gambling earl” lost the family fortune and worried that the rest of the family hated him for it, but of course they did not.   Toby, Denys’ brother was not merely the 14th Earl of Winchilsea, but also the 9th Earl of Nottingham.  Their beloved house Haverholme Priory in Lincolnshire had to be given up by Denys’ and Toby’s father, and today is visible on Google maps as a ruin.  Here is a picture of Haverholme Priory from a website that maps its location.

Denys was very happy at Eton and went back for visits all his life; he was an indifferent student at Oxford and was known for the all-night gambling parties in his flat.  One of the participants was Yusupov.  He turns up later in the book hosting Denys’ cousin Muriel in Russia; the party dining with him in his palace had to take refuge in the basement on the night of the first Bolshevik uprising.  And here it is revealed that this is indeed the Prince Yusupov who murdered Rasputin in that very basement.

Denys went to Africa first in 1911 and over the years tried various schemes to make money, which were more gambles than business-like propositions.  He was active in various capacities in the war, most meaningfully as an aide of Lieutenant General Hoskins both in East Africa and in Mesopotamia (now Iraq). 

It was sometime during the war the he first met Karen Blixon; their connection is an interesting one.  He was once introduced by her husband, the Baron Bror Blixon as his good friend and his wife’s lover.  Bror was content to have Karen finding happiness elsewhere, as he did, and after all, he had given her syphilis.  By this time Bror was spending less time at their farm.  Denys would stay at the farm and then at times the two would not see each other for 2 years at a stretch, mainly because of long trips by each of them to Europe.  He truly loved her and was happy with her, but could not give her the commitment one would have reason to expect.   And he did not give her financial support which might have saved her farm. 

He was a big game hunter and led safaris, most notably two for the Prince of Wales, before he became Edward the VII.  By all accounts he was truly meticulous in his planning and the long and arduous treks went smoothly.  In the course of this work he saw the terrible destruction of the wildlife as a great tragedy and was instrumental in setting up preserves for them.  That is his great legacy.   Well, that, and helping to give Karen Blixen some great material.

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