Denys Finch Hatton, white hunter, was the scion of a gilded Edwardian age, a charming Etonian of whom his aunt said, "it is bad for boys to be so good-looking". Perhaps the gods heard her, for soon after Hatton lost all his hair (and was thenceforth never photographed without a hat); although he lost none of his charm, as Sara Wheeler seeks to prove in her rigorously-researched biography, with its fine eye for historical detail.
We follow Hatton from Oxford and gambling, and an affair with the bohemian Iris Tree, through a passion for aviation to British East Africa, where he is plunged into a now-forgotten episode of the First World War. The continent became an extension of Armageddon. Wheeler quotes one historian that the German campaign there was "the climax of Africa's exploitation: its use as a mere battlefield".
This was the stuff of The African Queen, and Wheeler has done a valuable job in bringing it back into focus. Even more salutary are Hatton's exploits in the war in Mesopotamia, recalling Siegfried Sassoon's shock in 1917 when he discovered that the war was being fought for "Mesopotamian Oil Wells".
Back in London, Hatton finds all his friends are dead. The obvious alternative is to return to Kenya, and Karen Blixen - with whom Hatton conducted a long, ultimately unsatisfactory romance. Daughter of Danish aristocracy, fatally infected with syphilis by her former husband, Blixen attempts to run her coffee plantation but seems ill-equipped for the task. At the nadir of its fortunes, she is reduced to taking an African baby to bed with her for consolation.
Wheeler's Blixen is self-dramatising, reliant on the increasingly mercurial Hatton. "The serene wisdom of Out of Africa was an ideal she never actually achieved," says Wheeler, promptly dispelling that husky Meryl Streep voiceover in the reader's head. Meanwhile, Hatton takes the Prince of Wales and his entourage (including his lover, Thelma Furness) on safari, evoking a thankfully lost age of tented luxury and murdered wildlife.
It was the heyday of the Happy Valley set, the drugging, drinking, adulterous colonials who turned Kenya into a byword for decadence. One club member is ejected when discovered to have offered HRH cocaine. When a rhino charges the Prince, Hatton steps in to shoot it, only to be upbraided for spoiling his photograph. Hatton replies, "Your Royal Highness, suppose you look at the matter from my point of view. If you, the heir to the throne, are killed, what is there left for me to do? I can only go behind a tree and blow my brains out."
Yet Hatton fails to emerge as a sympathetic character, despite the wonderful description of "that distant horizons look" in his Robert Redford eyes. He is too selfish and too inconstant, achieving little of substance. Perhaps he was a victim of his own early death in 1931, crashing his plane into, rather than out of Africa, just as the imperial sun was beginning to set. Increasingly interested in conservation, and in photographing animals rather than shooting them, Hatton might yet have turned into a force for good in a part of the world which sorely needed it.
Philip Hoare's 'England's Lost Eden' is published by HarperPerennialReuse content