Too Close to the Sun: The Audacious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton

“This is an ordinary story of big guns and small planes, princes from England and sultans from Zanzibar, roulette, a famous divorce case, a Welsh castle and a Gilbertine priority, marauding lions, syphilis, bankruptcy, self-destruction, and the tragedy of the human heart.”

Ok so the reason for reading this book?

Sara Wheeler.

I’ve been wanting to read something by Sara Wheeler again (and have probably waited too long to do so!), since I read – and loved – Terra Incognita.

So I went about this in a roundabout way, after reading Beryl Markham’s fantastic West with the Night (some thoughts on this later), and deciding to see what else there was to read about that era of colonial Africa. She does mention Denys Finch Hatton in the book.

So this Denys Finch Hatton. Who was he? Besides being played by Robert Redford in the film version that is.

He was immortalised in Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa (a book I read too long ago to remember – time for a library loot!), he was a loyal Etonian (such that years after he graduated, he took a date there), a game hunter, an aviator, an aristocrat, a charmer and lover of many women. And there has apparently been quite the fascination about him:

“His mysterious otherness caught my attention: he appeared as the eternal wanderer. I quickly discovered that he left few traces, and that I was at the end of a long line of women searching for the real Denys. But the real Denys had escaped into legend.”

Despite the fact that he never quite made it – in terms of what we measure as success and achievements, that is:

“Chief among these was the gap between character and accomplishment, being and doing. Almost everyone who knew Denys spoke of his greatness, yet he did little. I wondered if we are tyrannised by the need for achievement.”

Karen Blixen/Tania/Isak Dinesen loved Denys with all her heart, and wrote to her brother:

“that such a person as Denys does exist, something I have indeed guessed at before, but hardly dared to believe, and that I have been lucky enough to meet him in this life and been so close to him – even though there have been long periods of missing him in between – compensates for everything else in the world, and other things cease to have any significance.”

Unfortunately, while DFH obviously cared for her and he often stayed with her and had such wonderful times together, he doesn’t quite love her as she does him, as he isn’t the sort of man to be tied down to one woman. Sadly he later shacks up for a while with Karen’s good friend, Beryl Markham.

One of the most interesting aspects of this book for me was the insights into Markham’s character. It showed me how much can be omitted, twisted in a book, it made me realise how unreliable some narrators can be, even if it is supposedly their own life story (there are questions about just who wrote Markham’s West with the Night). In Too Close to the Sun, she is so different from what I had read about her in her own book, where she talked about her love for horses, flying, and Africa. And not at all about her men, and there were plenty, for she was “nearly six feet tall, slim-hipped and long-fingered, although she was not classically beautiful – she had a strong chin and toothy jaw – she was handsome; her Nordic looks have often been described as Garboesque. She gave the impression that she cared little for anything on two legs, and men found her nonchalance attractive”. And there you have it, perhaps she really didn’t care much for anything on two legs, which is why she didn’t write much about them in her own book.

Anyway, Too Close to the Sun was a great read, and I had expected nothing less from Sara Wheeler. I suppose one could argue that DFH’s life itself was great fodder, true, but the amount of research it took, her way of piecing together the puzzle, and the way she brings him, and East Africa, to life in her writing, is what makes this a great read. I mean, I never expected to be interested in reading about the war in East Africa, but it was so different from the European front:

“It wasn’t the troglodyte world of the trenches, but it was another kind of hell. The war in East Africa – virtually unknown to the outside world – was, in its safari through purgatory, a negative metaphor for the Kenyan paradise of the epoch handed down in literature and myth.”

This book was a fascinating insight into this man, the woman who devoted herself to him, and what is perhaps his true love – East Africa.

Sara Wheeler’s books
Travel books
Evia: Travels on an Undiscovered Greek Island (1992)
Chile: Travels in a Thin Country (1994)
Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica (1997)
The Magnetic North: Travels in the Arctic (2010)
Access All Areas: Selected Writings 1990-2010 (2011)

Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard (2002)
Too Close to the Sun: The Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton (2006)

Children’s book
Dear Daniel: Letters from Antarctica (1997)


  1. Great review, with many insights into this man, Denys Finch Hatton, whom I had not heard of before. I didn’t know about Sara Wheeler’s books either. I love that expression: “safari through purgatory” which really sums up what it must’ve felt like.
    And is it just me, or does Brad Pitt resemble Robert Redford in his younger years?


    1. Oh I’m sure plenty of people think that! If you search for ‘Brad Pitt Robert Redford’ among some of the search suggestions is ‘Brad Pitt Robert Redford’s son’!


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