The Old Feudalist

D.A.N. Jones

  • Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass by Karen Blixen
    Penguin, 351 pp, £3.95, January 1986, ISBN 0 14 008533 5
  • Out of Africa by Karen Blixen
    Century, 288 pp, £14.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 7126 1016 2
  • Isak Dinesen: The Life of Karen Blixen by Judith Thurman
    Penguin, 511 pp, £3.50, April 1986, ISBN 0 14 009699 X

Some of my best friends have been moved to tears by the 1985 motion picture which takes its title from the Baroness Blixen’s 1937 memoir, Out of Africa. These suckers will be taken aback if they ever come to read the old book on which they wrongly suppose it to be ‘based’. The memoir has been reissued by Penguin Books, with movie advertisements on the cover, and so have some other books by the Baroness, written under her pseudonym, Isak Dinesen. Here now is another reissue, from Century Hutchinson, hard-backed and elaborately illustrated, striving to connect the book with the film, to encourage sentimental nostalgia about British settlers in Kenya and to strengthen concern about the conservation of African wild life. The much-hyped new movie is an old-fashioned women’s-weepie, with no laughs but plenty of scenery, lugubriously relating a version of the Baroness’s love affair when she lived among other white settlers in British East Africa (1914-1931). The Baroness’s memoir has the same setting, but it is mostly about black natives, and her love affair is never discussed: it is hinted at in a rather tantalising way. There is much humour, of a sardonic sort, in the book, several good stories and surprises – none of which have reached the screen. It would be a mistake to suppose that the unsurprising movie was ‘based’ on this book. What it is really based on (very loosely) is Judith Thurman’s workmanlike biography of the Baroness, Isak Dinesen: The Life of Karen Blixen, which Penguin Books has happily reissued, with a picture of ogling film stars on the cover.

Judith Thurman was Associate Producer of the movie, and it is a pity that she could not get it closer to her own respectable book. I am sure she will agree that this pretty but simple-minded weepie has precious little in common with Baroness Blixen’s ingenious, disingenuous memoir. The most obvious difference is that the Africans in the movie don’t say anything much (they don’t even do anything much) whereas in the Baroness’s book they have a great deal to say and are the centre of attention. The Baroness, in her uninhibited way, calls the whites the Settlers, or the Immigrants, and she calls the blacks the Natives.

I will follow her example. The Natives in whom she is most interested are Kikuyu, Masai and Somali. She is, perhaps, something of a ‘racist’, for she shamelessly quotes in her first chapter:

Noble find I
ever the Native,
and insipid the Immigrant.

But among the Immigrants and Settlers, this Danish gentlewoman found one or two who were not unbearably insipid – mostly eccentric Scandinavians, like herself – and she gives them a fair bit of space. They do not appear in the movie, which is full of stock English types, one of them lazily played by the American sex-object, Robert Redford. He should have taken lessons in the British accent from the hard-working Marlon Brando.

Firmly hooked to the movie, this elaborate Century edition of Out of Africa is packed with illustrations which will appeal to nostalgic movie-weepers but have nothing to do with the text. We are reading about an interesting Kikuyu called Kamante, his skills and his religious faith, and are suddenly confronted by a photograph of a boring Englishman with a woman, a pipe and a silly sun-hat. The caption is: ‘Tommy Lascelles and Cockie Blixen, Bror’s second wife, on safari’. Who are Tommy and Cockie? The moviegoer may remember that the Baroness’s husband was called ‘Bror’. He is mentioned only twice in the book, unnamed: ‘When the war broke out, my husband and the two Swedish assistants on the farm volunteered and went down to the German border ... My husband wrote and instructed me to load up four ox-wagons.’ Tommy and Cockie don’t appear in the book at all.

Not all the old photographs are so useless. The Baroness herself looks (as she might have wished) sometimes like an efficient, pet-loving country gentlewoman, sometimes like a gallant and athletic young man. Then there is a good photograph of Kinanjui, a Kikuyu chieftain with whom she was friendly and whose death she describes and mourns in the sombre final section of her book. This epitaph for Kinanjui precedes a similar lament for Denys Finch-Hatton, her lover, who died when he crashed his little aircraft: it is only in this section that the Baroness gives grounds for supposing that Finch-Hatton was more to her than a friend and comrade – though she does so with severe discretion, a deliberate emulation of classical restraint. The whole book is written in that tone, as if she wanted to present herself as one of Homer’s characters, like Odysseus, and the final section uses the deaths of her English lover and her African chieftain as emblems of her sorrow at being forced out of Kenya, to the disadvantage of her retinue of African comrades and dependants. The photographs of her lover remind us that to cast Robert Redford as Finch-Hatton was rather like casting Ronald Reagan as Earl Mountbatten.

There are three other sorts of illustration here. One sort consists of big, highly-coloured reproductions of popular paintings of East African landscape showing elephants, leopards and lions, with titles like ‘The Old Warrior’ (a lion, not a Masai). These are the work of David Shepherd and Simon Combes, who have donated reproduction fees to wild-life conservation funds. They are relevant to the text, in which the Baroness zestfully celebrates the beasts she killed, and also relevant to the tears of the moviegoers, enchanted by the beauty of the land and fearful that it will soon be ruined. Similarly relevant are several photographs of East African plants and insects – which, the publishers tell us, were ‘collected in Kenya and secretly exported in the researcher’s luggage’. The plundering of Africa still continues. But the most appropriate set of illustrations comes from the Kenya artist Bina Dhanani, sharp, handsome designs hinting at beasts, birds and people in an African style, quite unphotographic, matching the text in mysterious harmony.

The publishers, infected by movie-hype, claim that Out of Africa ‘is probably the finest book ever written about the nature of the African continent and its people’. This is absurd: it is about living on a farm, 12 miles from Nairobi, and has nothing particular to tell us about Egypt, Ghana or Tunis. One might as well claim that Elias Canetti’s account of his boyhood in Bulgaria was ‘the finest book ever written about the nature of the European continent and its people’. The Baroness, like Canetti, was much inclined to generalise about races, and about sexes too, in a manner intolerable to our inhibited, anti-racist, anti-sexist age: her reflections on the people around her might be wounding to a pugnacious Kikuyu or a pacifist Masai, but to censor her would be prudish. As Canetti says, ‘the fluid boundary between individuals and types is a true concern of the real writer.’ Some touchy readers might take offence at her account of her discussion with Farah Aden, her Somali henchman, about The Merchant of Venice. Farah supported Shylock against Portia, whom he saw ‘as a woman of his own tribe, all sails set, crafty and insinuating, out to outman man’. He said Shylock should have used ‘a redhot knife. That brings out no blood ... He could have taken small bits, very small. He could have done that man a lot of harm, even a long time before he had got that one pound of his flesh ...’

The anti-racist may say that she ought not to have printed this conversation (and that it certainly could not appear in a decent movie) for it might encourage racists to believe that all Somali, or all Africans, are very bloodthirsty and regard women as foes: such scrupulousness explains why the Natives were not allowed to say anything in the movie. They might say the wrong thing. It is safer to mock the Settlers than the Natives. The Baroness does so, in the very next paragraph, under the heading ‘The Elite of Bournemouth’. She had managed to get an English doctor over to her farm, to treat one of her dependants who was about to die in childbirth. She goes on: ‘Afterwards he wrote me a letter to say that although he had for once, on my appeal, treated a Native, I must understand that he could not let that sort of thing occur again. I myself would fully realise the fact, he felt convinced, when he informed me that he had, before now, practised to the élite of Bournemouth.’ She does not moralise about this story. After all, the absurd doctor had come through torrents of tropical rain and had saved the woman and her baby. She merely invites the reader to share her squeal of sardonic, incredulous mirth.

In his recent book about modern East Africa, The Rock of the Wind, Denis Hills remarks that ‘colonialist writings’ are often attacked in the Nairobi press – including, to his regret, Out of Africa. One African critic has observed: ‘There is no difference between the works of Shiva Naipaul and the literature of Karen Blixen and Elspeth Huxley. They all degrade Africans.’ Another, a distinguished Kenya novelist, ‘places Elspeth Huxley and Karen Blixen (that old feudalist!) in the tradition of “great racists like Hume, Trollope, Hegel and Trevor-Roper, all arch-priests of privilege, racism and class snobbery”.’ Chinua Achebe, says Hills, has made a more constructive point in this argument – simply that, even today, the whites do all the talking and the blacks are supposed to do the listening. To give Baroness Blixen her due, she did listen to Africans. The worst that can be said of her is ‘that old feudalist!’, in Hill’s parenthesis.

It is only in aristocratic hints and factual reports that she expresses her disdain for the overbearing and dictatorial behaviour of the Government and the Settlers. She tells us first that she had 6000 acres for her coffee plantation, 1000 of which was squatters’ land, ‘what they called their shambas. The squatters are Natives, who hold a few acres on a white man’s farm, and in return have to work for him.’ These serfs, she says, regarded her ‘as a sort of superior squatter on their estates’. When they wanted to hold a big dance, she had to get permission from the District Commissioner before the Natives were allowed to brew an alcoholic drink: she was forbidden to give alcohol to Natives, even to Chief Kinanjui, though she disobeyed this law. The Kikuyu used to colour their bodies with a pale-red chalk at these dances, so the Government brought in a regulation forbidding them to do so. The ancient dances ‘were held by the white settlers to be immoral: they felt that they must have them prohibited by law.’ When the Baroness found that ‘25 of my young warriors’ had been jailed for dancing a forbidden dance, the old feudalist used her powers to get them set free. It was against the law for any Masai to attend any Kikuyu dance, but they still came to the Baroness’s estate. There was a riot and the Baroness patched up the warriors’ wounds.

The Settlers were fearful of the Masai. They would not let these warriors fight against the Germans, which they were eager to do. The Settlers preferred to conscript the more placid Kikuyu, as members of the Carrier Corps – but the Kikuyu had no enthusiasm for this European war. The Baroness tells a horrid tale about an Englishwoman who wanted her cook, a man called Esa. She told the Baroness that Esa must be handed over to her, or else she would tell her husband, a government official, to conscript him for the Carrier Corps. The Baroness warned Esa about this witch’s plot and he escaped into the bush. He did not come back until the war was over, bringing with him a remarkable picture for her, inscribed with words from the Koran. And he stayed with the old feudalist until he died.

Another tale concerns a Settler who flogged a Native for riding his horse, without permission. The man died, and the Settler said in evidence at the murder trial that he began by asking the Native ‘who had given him permission to ride the brown mare, and that he repeated this question forty to fifty times’. The Baroness, in her stoical, repetitive way, remarks: ‘Here his perdition begins. In England he would not have been able to ask a question forty or fifty times, he would have been stopped, in one way or another, long before the fortieth time. Here in Africa were people to whom he could shriek the same question fifty times over.’ During the flogging, two European friends of the Settler came to watch, for a quarter-hour or so. The Native was then tied up, locked in a store. A Native child got into the store and untied the prisoner’s feet, reporting in his evidence that the prisoner had said, ‘I want to die,’ and had then died.

The Baroness remarks that, by his intention and his attitude of mind, ‘the African, in his grave, saved the European.’ Doctors from Nairobi issued an expert medical report, explaining that the Native’s death was ‘due to the flogging, to starvation, and to the wish to die, the latter being the subject of special emphasis’. Thanks to the medical evidence, the Settler was not hanged, as he deserved, but sentenced only to two years’ rigorous imprisonment. The Baroness does not offer a moralising comment on this story, for there is no need to do so. What she asks us to notice and admire is the prisoner’s ability to say ‘I want to die’ and then do so. This is a story which should be read by all moviegoers who feel a sentimental nostalgia about the white Settlers of Kenya. There are many other stories in this good book which are equally strong, if not so horrible. The long story called ‘A Shooting Accident on the Farm’ could be the basis for an excellent African film about Kikuyu and Masai, but I doubt if the American or British film industries would be capable of attempting it.