Out of Africa Didn't Need Rugged Rob; NON-FICTION Too Close to the Sun Sara Wheeler

Article excerpt

Byline: KEITH DOVKANTS

SOON after beginning this book, a phrase popped into my head. By the end it had become almost an alternative title: Forget Robert Redford. The American actor played Denys Finch Hatton in the Eighties film Out Of Africa.

But the Finch Hatton who emerges from Sara Wheeler's fine biography bears little resemblance to the floppyhaired, handsome star in the movie. He is bald with a droopy long nose and slightly protruding ears. And, unlike Redford's white hunter archetype, he is a man of rich complexity.

Finch Hatton is disclosed here as his own man, possessed of an almost supernatural charm, someone who would lay down his life for his friends (and won a Military Cross displaying his willingness to do just that), a person who was adored by virtually everyone who met him and responded with a generosity and humanity rare by any standards.

He was born into an old family - his father became 13th Earl of Winchilsea - and he enjoyed a childhood of love and privilege. At Eton and Oxford, he perfected the art of friendship and was idolised, but the Finch Hatton who compels the reader only comes truly alive when, a few weeks from his 24th birthday in March 1911, he took a ship up the east coast of Africa, to Kenya. …