From clarion call to epithet of abuse to object of nostalgia, the idea of imperialism has had a checkered history. Once, in some circles at least, to call someone an imperialist was a compliment. As imperialism waned, ``imperialist'' became a term of denunciation among nations. Recently, however, imperialism -- British imperialism, especially -- has become an item of nostalgia, as television, film, and books have directed our attention to a past that, for better or worse, seems beyond recovery.
First, it was India. ``The Jewel in the Crown,'' the splendid television drama based on Paul Scott's remarkable ``Raj Quartet,'' provided a scrupulously fair-minded view of the last days of the British Raj. ``Gandhi,'' the Academy Award-winning film, paid tribute to an extraordinary leader and his role in the tumultuous birth of Indian democracy.
Now, it's East Africa, whose exhilarating landscape forms the background for this year's Academy Award winner, ``Out of Africa.'' The movie is based on the writings of Isak Dinesen and biographies of Dinesen and Denys Finch Hatton. While India inspired works of political significance, the topic of East Africa still summons up a world of romance, adventure, and escapism: wild animals, stalwart tribesmen, mysterious white hunters, and all sorts of expatriates with dubious pasts and still more dubious futures.
Unlike the British colonies in the Far East, or the excruciating climate of West Africa (a.k.a. ``the white man's grave''), East Africa was considered by many a suitable ``permanent home'' for members of the white race -- and not just any members (certainly not the teeming masses of the industrial cities), but specifically for persons of a certain class and background. It was considered particularly suitable for younger sons of the aristocracy and gentry with no prospects at home who would be able to preside over productive estates in the East African highlands (so like Scotland, as it was frequently remarked), conveniently supplied with fertile soil, lovely scenery, and cheap labor from the local African population. `OF course the best class of English don't come out to the colonies and those that do are apt to be bounders,' '' said Lady Maud Cecil, quoted in Valerie Pakenham's entertaining book, Out in the Noonday Sun: Edwardians in the Tropics (Random House, New York, 255 pages, $19.95, published in Great Britain as The Noonday Sun by Methuen). Pakenham agrees that ``East Africa . . . became a notorious magnet for `bounders.' ''
``Out in the Noonday Sun,'' filled with amusing illustrations that complement its lively text, surveys the activities of the British Edwardians in Africa, India, and Malaysia. Pakenham focuses on individual characters, whom she neatly divides into categories: pillars, rulers, traders, settlers, preachers, builders, hunters, players, and soldiers. We meet the great imperial proconsuls: Lords Curzon, Cromer, and Milner; the idealistic Frederick Lugard, who ``left the Indian Army in despair after an unrequited love affair and went off to Africa to fight the Arab slave-traders''; and Lord Delamere, who fell in love with East Africa, where he became the first settler given the right to purchase land and the settlers' leading spokesman, noted for his eccentricities and wild exploits. We read letters from Leonard Woolf analyzing the bogus nature of colonial life in Ceylon and from Joyce Cary enduring the frustrations of an adminsitrator's life in Nigeria. And much more. Pakenham is a witty, knowledgeable guide who makes good use of anecdotes while inserting, with a light touch, some shrewd insights of her own: ``Of course it [the Empire] was also about having your cake and eating it,'' she observes. ``. . . champagne for dinner and lions in the morning.'' UNCERTAIN markets, shifts in currency exchange rates, and unforeseen natural disasters -- from fierce weather to sudden plagues of pests -- made farming a far more difficult proposition than many had anticipated. The story of the Blixen coffee plantation is a case in point. But Karen Blixen, who struggled in vain to make her plantation profitable after her husband had mismanaged it in the first place, was to receive something far more valuable from her East Africa experiences.
Judith Thurman's well researched, sensitive, and intelligent Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller (St. Martin's Press, $4.95 paper) is likely to remain the definitive biography of the Danish author who wrote in English and Danish and spent a germinal part of her life (the years 1914-31) in Kenya. Born Karen Christentze Dinesen in 1885, she became Baroness von Blixen-Finecke by her marriage to a Swedish second cousin. Thurman's biography exhaustively examines the many aspects of this multi-faceted life and personality: from the literary and artistic influences that helped mold the imagination of the woman who wrote ``Seven Gothic Tales'' (1934) to the experiences that were distilled in her books ``Out of Africa'' (1937) and ``Shadows on the Grass'' (1960); from her instant affection for Africa and Africans to her more ambivalent feelings toward some of her fellow settlers; from her difficult marriage to a rough, philanderer, Baron Bror Blixen, to her intense, myste rious love for the English aristocrat trader and hunter Denys Finch Hatton. Only after her marriage was over, after Finch Hatton's tragic death, after she had given up on the farm and left Kenya, did Karen Blixen complete her ``Seven Gothic Tales'' and assume the pen name Isak Dinesen, a coupling of her maiden name and the biblical name meaning ``to laugh.''
So detailed is this biography that the reader who comes to it without some prior knowledge of the subject may well become lost in a veritable forest of information and analysis. But there can be little doubt that Thurman has rendered a great service, both to her subject and to those readers who have felt the fascination of this strange, self-consciously exotic woman and her work. ISAK Dinesen's Letters from Africa 1914-1931, edited for the Rungstedlund Foundation by Frans Lasson and translated by Anne Born (University of Chicago Press, 474 pages, $9.95 paper) are fascinating in themselves and in their relationship to her memoir ``Out of Africa.'' In seeing the differences between the immediate impressions recorded in her letters and the carefully composed tableaux to be found in her published work, we gain a greater appreciation of the imaginative skill with which she reshaped her experiences into a finished work of art. And we have the added pleasure of sharing some of the excitement of her undigested experiences and ideas as they first occurred to her.
Not that her experiences were ever completely undigested. As Lasson's introduction points out, Karen Blixen sometimes gave different, even contradictory, accounts of the same experience in different letters. Writing to her younger brother Thomas, then fighting for the Allies on the Western Front in World War I, she repeats a compliment given her by a close friend. Describing the same incident in a letter written the same day to her mother in Denmark, Blixen attributes the compliment to the redoubtable Lord Delamere. Clearly she had, as Lasson notes, an ``instinctive feeling for publicity.''
Many expert observers of Africa have tended to agree with Blixen's analyses of the continent's ``natives.''
``I am absolutely convinced that the natives are the `best class' out here,'' she writes her mother in 1914 (italics denote words she wrote in English in a letter written in Danish). ``. . . I think their excellent manners are to a great extent due to the fact that they come from so many different races. . . . Kikuyu, Kavirondo, Swahili, Masai, Somalis, who all differ from each other as greatly . . . as Finns and Italians, live together all the time. . . .''
Her strong feelings for the people and landscape of Africa and her keen appreciation for the primal qualities of nomadic life are not the only delights her letters have to offer. There are speculations on feminism, identity, fate, the new sexual mores of the 1920s, and even a charmingly caustic assessment of the character of ``Irene,'' in Galsworthy's ``Forsyte Saga,'' which Blixen was reading with much enjoyment and with the sharp critical eye of an intuitive writer. IN contrast to the wealth of material on Isak Dinesen, little is known of Denys Finch Hatton (1887-1931). Reconstructing his life from what evidence was available, Errol Trzebinski assures us, was a tantalizingly difficult task. She has aptly entitled her effort Silence Will Speak: A Study of the Life of Denys Finch Hatton and His Relationship with Karen Blixen (University of Chicago Press, 348 pages, $8.95 paper).
Although nearly everyone who knew him was impressed by his honesty, courage, and quiet charm, Denys Finch Hatton's reserve made him elusive. But one thing is clear: Although handsome, he was -- unlike Robert Redford, who plays him in the movie -- prematurely bald. In addition to his considerable physical strength, his keen wit, and his instinctive feeling for wild animals, he was also an unusually receptive listener, the perfect ear for Karen Blixen's storytelling abilities. It is not surprising that this man who preferred being told a story to reading it should also have had a great love for the Old Testament and a fondness for Walt Whitman's poetry.
Trzebinski's portrait of Finch Hatton is based on a good deal of research, but still relies most heavily on the imaginative sympathy she has for him. In some cases, this means that the reader will feel less than comfortable in relying on this book as an unimpeachable source of facts. Some details are inaccurate.
Yet, Trzebinski has a keen ability to grasp the essence of persons, places, and eras that have captured her interest. TRZEBINSKI, who lived for 12 years in the suburb of Nairobi known as Karen (once the site of the Blixen coffee plantation), was born in England. She settled in Kenya at the age of 18, when she married a Polish architect. In writing about The Kenya Pioneers (Norton, New York, $19.95; William Heinemann, London, 240 pages, 12.95), she again displays understanding and intelligent sympathy for her subject matter.
In this case, her subject is the Europeans who settled in the East African Protectorate between 1896 and 1920, before the area became a Crown Colony. This history is no mere period piece, but a serious portrait of the hopes, plans, schemes, accomplishments, and failures of some of the enterprising people who contributed to the country's development.
One of the most interesting and well-told sections of the book is its account of the so-called ``Uganda Plan'' -- a scheme hatched by British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain and supported by an influential minority of early Zionist leaders to divert Jewish settlement from Palestine to the highlands of Kenya. One can only speculate about the hornets' nests that might have ensued had not the Seventh Zionist Congress, swayed by Chaim Weizmann, rejected this plan in 1905.
We also learn about some of the lesser-known ingredients in the settlers' melting pot, including the Afrikaner families who trekked north to settle in the area as homesteaders in the wake of the Boer War and Abraham Block, a poor Lithuanian Jewish immigrant who would eventually (in 1927) take over Nairobi's soon-to-be famous Norfolk Hotel.
But the most memorable portrait in the book is of Lord Delamere, who more than anyone else contributed to the establishment of white Kenyan society.
It's a long way from the enterprising, hardworking Kenya Pioneers to the cast of characters who inhabited the notorious ``Happy Valley'' from the 1920s onward, although the two groups do overlap in some respects.
It was the latter group that seemingly did its best to live up to the standard quip: ``Are you married or do you live in Kenya?'' IN 1941, when most Britons were totally absorbed by the war effort, the chief topic of conversation among the denizens of the Happy Valley was not the war, but a local murder mystery. Josslyn Hay, Earl of Erroll, a dashing, well-known philanderer, had been found shot dead in his car. The husband of one of Mrs. Hay's lovers was brought to trial, but acquitted, leaving the mystery unsolved.
For years this case fascinated the writer Cyril Connolly, but he never got around to writing the book he planned. Instead the book was written by a journalist, James Fox, to whom Mr. Connolly bequeathed his information.
White Mischief: The Murder of Lord Erroll (Vintage, New York, $4.95 paper) boasts a cast of charcters too improbable to be anything but true, and scandalous carryings-on too juicy for any self-respecting novelist to have invented.
Mr. Fox has done a laudable job of disentangling the personalities and events surrounding the mystery.
Fow provides fascinating accounts of his own meetings with some of the principals. And his recollections of Connolly's efforts are also very good -- all this along with his own conclusions about what must surely have been the most sensational of the many bizarre events among those white settlers who gave the colony the notorious reputation it may or may not have deserved.