What compelled three well-known British writers to leave their homes and travel 6,000 miles to participate in a nasty late-19th-century conflict in the far-off South African veldt? This question lies at the heart of Sarah Lefanu’s excellent analysis of how Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle and Mary Kingsley found themselves following the flag in Britain’s last great imperial war.
Her book starts with concise biographical introductions to these protagonists, up to the start of what is still widely known as the Boer War in 1899. We get the familiar Kipling odyssey from Bombay, through fostering in the ‘House of Desolation’ in Southsea to journalism in Lahore. Marriage took him to Vermont, where he started a family and fine-tuned his thinking on Britain and empire. After returning to England, he visited South Africa, which he saw as a tabula rasa for the style of colonial administration he had so admired in India. But his idyll was punctured by the tragic death in early 1899 of his beloved daughter Josephine, for whom he had written his Jungle Book stories.
Conan Doyle, Kipling’s equal as a storyteller, though without his overall literary brilliance, grew up in straitened circumstances in Edinburgh, where his draughtsman father was an alcoholic. After qualifying as a doctor and making his mark with Sherlock Holmes, his life too was blighted by personal problems — his wife Louise’s tuberculosis and his love for a younger woman, Jean Leckie.
Mary Kingsley is the least familiar of the three. A niece of the author of Westward Ho! (a book now unread, but so popular in its day that it gave its name to the Devon town where Kipling was educated), she became famous as a traveller, ethnologist and campaigner for indigenous West Africans.