Elspeth Huxley and Time & Tide

Anne Wetherilt, PhD student, English

In November 2020, a one-day online conference brought together scholars, journalists and readers to celebrate the centenary of the feminist magazine Time and Tide.  Speakers highlighted the magazine’s progressive interwar agenda, and the contributions of well-known writers such as Rebecca West, Winifred Holtby, E. M. Delafield and Cicely Hamilton.  Although the magazine had no overt party-political affiliation, it engaged with topical issues, including women’s political rights, their role in the workplace and their cultural interests.  In the late 1920s, it also embraced an internationalist agenda, committed to peace and disarmament.

However by the late 1930s Time and Tide had evolved from a feminist magazine, aimed primarily at educated middle-class women and their political and cultural interests, to a general interest periodical with an increasingly male and conservative readership.  After World War Two, the magazine moved further to the right and women no longer played a key role. Its post-war coverage has attracted limited scholarly interest.

I first became interested in Time and Tide’s post-war history as I was researching the late colonial fiction of Elspeth Huxley.  Best known for her fictional autobiographies The Flame Trees of Thika (1959) and The Mottled Lizard (1962), which depict an idyllic Kenyan childhood in the early decades of the twentieth century, Huxley was a frequent contributor to Time and Tide in the 1950s and 1960s, commenting on political developments in Britain’s overseas colonies. Although she came to accept African independence, Huxley was the voice of a conservative readership, consistently arguing against an accelerated timetable for decolonisation and expressing concerns about the future of African nations, governed by, in her view, ill-prepared indigenous politicians.

Widely recognised as an expert on African matters and praised for her lyrical descriptions of the African landscape, Huxley’s contributions provide a fascinating insight into the politics and lived experience of decolonisation.  But they also tell us something about Time and Tide’s post-war readership: interested in the Empire, willing to adopt a critical stance towards the British government, but not immune to sensationalist accounts of nationalist violence and African ‘savagery.’  Huxley’s journalistic output was substantial and varied, but two examples may illustrate these points.

In late 1953, Huxley reported on a recent trip to Kenya, providing first-hand experience of the Mau Mau insurgency.  Her articles contain a fascinating mix of location and character sketches: the reader walks with Huxley on the streets of Njoro, her former hometown, climbs on a jeep to visit a detention camp and witnesses the ‘brutish, sullen look of hatred and inhumanity’ on the faces of Mau Mau detainees.  These pieces combine factual reporting and an earnest attempt to understand the causes of the uprising, ranging from rural land poverty and urban unemployment to the loss of tribal customs and a desire to end colonial occupation.  But this is combined with more subjective, and at times racist judgement.  Thus, Huxley compares the Mau Mau uprising to European medieval witchcraft, a spiritual cancer, and its adherents to Nazi stormtroopers.  Equally controversial are her descriptions of the infamous Mau Mau oaths, which echo sensationalist media accounts, yet were based more on hearsay and less on fact:

There are seven grades of Mau Mau oath and now an eight has been added in the forest.  The ritual of the first three is disgusting and barbaric, but not unprintable, and a good many have taken at least the first two under duress.  Those who have taken the fourth oath and upwards have done so, it is believed, because they wished to and have performed such acts of bestiality (in its true sense) and perversion that many doubt whether these men and women can ever again take their places as decent members of a civilized society

Writing at the height of the Emergency, Huxley’s vision for a peaceful, independent Kenya is rather vague.  She recommends development in agriculture, irrigation and industry, alongside the eradication of racial barriers: ‘All Kenya’s races must work together towards coalescence as a nation.’

In August 1959, mere months before the British government lifts the Emergency and invites the various parties to the negotiating table, she offers a more focused commentary on Kenya’s political future.  Here, she reveals a deep unease with African leaders’ inclination towards one-party rule and dismisses what she views as the naïve British belief that newly independent nations will follow the Westminster model of democracy.  She further urges the Tory government to provide safeguards to Asian and European minorities ‘against being swamped by an enfranchised flood of Africans quite without experience.’

Huxley also criticises Labour for turning colonial politics into a major election issue, accusing them of undermining efforts to install democracy, by backing ‘self-rule plus autocracy.’  What is fascinating about this later piece is that it draws a clear line from colonial to metropolitan politics: Africa is to be a ‘stink-bomb’ in the forthcoming general election.  But, yet again, Time and Tide readers are given a topical political commentary, which is balanced precariously between factual reporting and lingering colonial discourse.

To conclude, by the 1950s, Time and Tide had travelled a long way from its suffragist and internationalist origins.   For me, this brief case study is relevant for two main reasons.  First, in light of the ongoing re-assessment of Empire, it is crucial to listen to a wide spectrum of voices, even when they express views that are ambivalent.  And second, not to abandon a historical source when its original commitment is a distant memory.


‘The Kenya Scene – I: A Raid against Mau Mau’, Time and Tide, 28 November 1953, pp. 1539-40

‘The Kenya Scene – II’, Time and Tide, 5 December 1953, pp. 1569-70

‘Kenya Screening’, Time and Tide, 26 December 1953, pp. 1695-6

‘The Issue in Africa’, Time and Tide, 1 August 1959, p. 820

Further reading:

David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2006),

Catherine Clay, Time and Tide: The Feminist and Cultural Politics of a Modern Magazine (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018)

Angela V. John, Turning the Tide: The Life of Lady Rhondda (Cardigan: Parthian, 2013)

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2 Responses to Elspeth Huxley and Time & Tide

  1. Dennis Walder says:

    Dear Anne

    I much enjoyed this chip off the great block of your PhD – fascinating and insightful. I assume you have come across Kariuki’s memoir of Mau Mau, which gives a very different and indeed insider view of the Emergency? I came across it in Penguin’s remarkable Africa Series, ed by Basil Bunting, not long after arriving in the UK. It was of course unavailable in South Africa, although Time and Tide was

  2. Sara Haslam says:

    Anne this is a fascinating piece! Thanks for sharing this snapshot of your research.
    I’ve worked on the earlier life of Time and Tide and found the developments you trace very interesting.
    Who was funding it in the 1930s, do you know?
    Thanks again for a great read.

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