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18 April 2012

How Happy Was My Valley

Over the past few months, I’ve been taking a break from Napoleonic spies to hang out in a very different time and place: Kenya in the 1920s.

I blame my friend Christina for this. (Hi, Christina!) Last year, she gave me a copy of Frances Osborne’s The Bolter, an account of the tumultuous life of Idina Sackville Gordon Hay et cetera et cetera. She collected husbands the way some of us collect books.

Idina Gordon formed the lynchpin of the group that came to be known as the Happy Valley set, a group of English settlers in Kenya’s Wanjohi Valley with more old Etonians per capita than in Berkeley Square. They had their own club—the Muthaiga Club—polo matches, race week, and incredibly racy parties that included hard liquor, recreational drugs, and spouse-swapping. "Are you married or do you live in Kenya?" went the saying back home in England. For those who are fans of Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, or the movie version of the same, many of the actors in this sub-society will be very familiar, in particular Bror Blixen, Dinesen’s first husband, and Denys Finch-Hatton, her charismatic and restless lover.

The more one reads about the individuals involved, the more the term "Happy Valley" comes to seem like a misnomer. Most of the prime players in the Happy Valley set carried emotional scars of various kinds, from the volatile Alice de Janze, who shot her lover (and then married him) to Idina herself, funneling lovers to her younger husband in an attempt to keep him amused. For more about the prime players, you can't go wrong with Paul Spicer's The Temptress, about Alice de Janze, or Sara Wheeler's beautifully written biography of Denys Finch-Hatton, Too Close to the Sun.

It was the contrasts that struck me the most forcibly about Kenya in the 1920s. The hard-partying old Etonians were also, many of them, dedicated and innovative agriculturalists. Some farmed with more enthusiasm than success (there are countless stories of spectacular failures), but many truly put their minds and their backs to the test. Many also lived in huts while their houses were being built, the primitive accommodations at odds with their Paris couture.

What struck me most about the book, though, was the author’s admission that she hadn’t known, until she was a teenager, that Idina Gordon was her great-grandmother. She found out largely by chance.

Doesn’t that make you stop and think about how little we know about our own personal histories? Or, even more alarmingly, how much we think we know of our families, might, in fact, be false.

My book, which comes out in early 2013, jumps back and forth between 1999 New York, 1910s England, and 1920s Kenya, with the Happy Valley set very much in evidence. It's currently titled THE ASHFORD AFFAIR. I’d thought about calling it Grass Huts and Coronets, but somehow I doubt my editor would go for it….

What historical periods or people have caught your imagination recently?

6 Comments:

Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

I really enjoyed The Bolter. Idina's life was rather sad (I'm still mad at Euan and Barbie!), but I find her fascinating for her time period. As for what historical periods or people who've caught my imagination? WWI and Raymond Asquith. My book is set during WWI and I didn't realize how engrossing the war was--it wasn't just death and destruction. For some reason, Asquith's life has caught me in a vise and won't let go. I purchased a copy of his letters last week and my fascination has deepened even more. I guess I have to put him in my book to shake it off! *g*

8:46 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

This book sounds so wonderful, Lauren! Have you seen the movie WHITE MISCHIEF - it's about a real life love triangle and murder among the Happy Valley set. I can't remember the names of the real historical people involved.

I'm just emerging from White Terror Paris for my recently completed book, I'm exploring Lisbon in December 1812 for a novella, and I'm about to dive into 1817 London. All close together, but there's always something new to discover!

10:48 AM  
Blogger Jessica said...

"Grass Huts and Coronets" sounds like a fabulous title to me -- maybe it's the academic in me.

I guess, like everyone else, I've been intrigued by the WWI era, thanks to Downton Abbey, and the 1960s, thanks to Mad Men. (Perhaps I watch too much TV?) My reading has been mostly contemporary lately, with the exception of The Bungalow, by Sarah Jio, set in 2011 and 1942-1943. But the WWII era has always fascinated me.

11:30 AM  
Blogger Margaret Evans Porter said...

I thought The Bolter was splendid, and have read various other nonfic reminiscences of the Happy Valley...not to mention viewing White Mischief & Out of Africa.

As a writer it's so liberating--and refreshing--to step into a different era and location. I look forward to following you in this new direction!

11:51 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I can't wait to read this book Lauren. Right now I'm fascinated with. WWII. Both my dad & my uncle fought in the war. He never really talked about it. It wasn't until he passed away that I learned he was in the battle of the bulge. I have lots of photos that he took of Avignon & Paris.

12:26 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I'm with Jessica, I love the title Grass Huts and Coronets. Aside from Georgian England, my other great love is late 15thC/early 16thC Germany.

7:57 AM  

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