Sarah LeFanu has already shown her ability to combine scholarship and storytelling, in the intelligently readable Rose Macaulay (2003) and in S Is for Samora (2012), a mixture of history, memoir, biography and political analysis of independent Mozambique. In Something of Themselves, she has achieved a classic to rank with Penelope Fitzgerald’s group biography The Knox Brothers (1977), in which Fitzgerald told the life stories of her father and uncles, intertwined with the cultural history of Edwardian and Georgian England, and Richard Holmes’s study of Romantic scientists The Age of Wonder (2008).
Throughout, she provides insights into the writings of her subjects, giving biographical context, for example, to Conan Doyle’s 1890 story ‘The Surgeon of Gaster Fell’, which touches on his uneasiness about his father, along with his family shame and fear of hereditary illness. So why did all three throw up everything and make for South Africa? LeFanu points to their differing but compelling conceptions of public service, patriotism and imperial duty. Both men were traditional imperialists, while Mary Kingsley was more complex, prepared to take on the system over hut taxes in Sierra Leone but an anti-suffragist, opposed to female political involvement.