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Too Close to the Sun: The Audacious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton Hardcover – Deckle Edge, April 24, 2007

4 out of 5 stars 60 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

A superlative athlete with an enormous capacity for friendship and a chronically underachieving, charismatic loner with eternal wanderlust, Denys Finch Hatton (1887–1931) emerged as an iconic figure in the memoirs of two lovers, Karen Blixen's Out of Africa and Beryl Markham's West with the Night. In childhood, this earl's son—who would later reject the trappings of worldly success, saw his family fortune depleted, developed a passion for hunting from a nonconformist uncle as well as an appreciation for strong, artistic women like his mother—found Eton a "youthful paradise," says Wheeler, hat made it possible for him "to believe in the African dream." The nonconformist in him was drawn to the freedom the Dark Continent promised; after settling in East Africa, he fought on the WWI battlefield there and later became a hunter shepherding rich clients. Hatton, who died when the plane he was piloting crashed, left no diaries and his inner life remains unknowable, as Wheeler (Cherry) acknowledges, yet in this thoughtful, satisfying work, she masterfully captures his allure through the memories of others and through her deft interpretation of both his East African and British milieus in the tumultuous years surrounding WWI. Photos. (Apr. 24)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Denys Finch Hatton has achieved a measure of fame as the lover of Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) as portrayed in her memoir I^ Out of Africa. Much has been written about their relationship, and the film version, with Robert Redford portraying Finch Hatton, has added to public interest. Wheeler, in a well-written and engrossing biography, focuses on the full span of Finch Hatton's life. He was born into a family of "fallen" British gentry who were, typically, land rich but cash poor. As a youth, he seemed a "golden boy" with a bright future; he was strikingly handsome, a superb athlete, and blessed with immense personal charm. Yet part of that charm was an intriguing but frustrating aloofness. Even in Kenya he found it difficult to sustain commitment, as his prolonged but erratic affair with Blixen illustrated. This thoroughly enjoyable work casts a light on an attractive but enigmatic figure, but a true understanding of him remains tantalizingly out of reach. Jay Freeman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Random House (April 24, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400060699
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400060696
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.1 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (60 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #465,852 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
If you know of Denys Finch Hatton, you probably know of him as the flyer in _Out of Africa_, whether in the memoir by Karen Blixen (under the pen name Isak Dinesen) or in the movie as played by Robert Redford. His long and troubled love affair with Blixen and her commemoration of him in her writing are now just about all there is to Hatton, but that was not what those around him would have thought. He was a legend in his own time, idolized by men and adored by women, as unforgettable a personality as anyone around him had ever met. The new biography of Hatton, _Too Close to the Sun: The Audacious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton_ (Random House) by Sara Wheeler, contains many reminiscences of those whom Hatton had impressed. "As for charm, I suspect Denys invented it," wrote aviatrix Beryl Markham, who also wrote of her lover in the memoir _West with the Night_. "The man with about the most impressive personality I have ever known," wrote Bertie, Lord Cranworth, who had fought alongside him. Yet as Wheeler admits, "the real Denys" is unknowable. He did not leave a diary, and there are only a few dozen letters existent. It is clear that except for making himself into a legend, his accomplishments were minimal. Since he died in 1931, no one now alive has adult memories of him. He is thus perhaps a thin subject for a full biography, but Wheeler has summarized both the life and the social forces of its time, to make a portrait of a man who charmed himself into history as effortlessly and successfully as he did everything else he tried.

He was schooled at Eton, which remained in his memory as his happiest years. He was admired there for his good looks, ability at sports, and his wit.
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Format: Hardcover
Having been to Africa several times, I had high hopes for this book. Unfortunately the book fell short.

First, the good: The opening of the book is well done. Using evocative language, she sets out the story and her motivations for writing it. She goes on to place her characters in history, describing both personal and political backgrounds. And this is the real strength of the book; Wheeler manages to conjure the mood of the time in which Denys lived and this goes a long way to explaining him. Looking at the accompanying pictures, you can almost imagine how he moved and spoke. The other key strength of the book is that it was meticulously researched. There are myriad entertaining stories about minor characters in the book, from Beryl Markham to Bror Blixen to the hedonists of the Happy Valley set.

Now the not so good: Wheeler clearly dislikes Karen Blixen. This would be fine if there were some objective reasons to back it up, but there simply aren't. Wheeler goes on and on about Blixen's histrionics and neediness and takes numerous shots at her abilities as a writer. By the book's midpoint the cattiness is bordering on the pathological. Apart from a grudging complement to Karen's "endurance" at the book's close, it seems she can do no right - especially in contrast to the supremely English Denys. And this "English good" while "others bad" runs throughout the book, so much so that I began to wonder if there wasn't a kind of cultural myopia at work. What Wheeler attacks as Karen's grandiosity (when she compares herself to a retreating Napoleon) was probably really an example of the Danish sense of humour, viz. bathos (read some Kierkegaard to see that in action!
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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