42. Something of Themselves, with Sarah LeFanu

This episode, we welcome to the podcast biographer Sarah LeFanu whose wonderful book Something of Themselves: Kipling, Kingsley, Conan Doyle and the Anglo-Boer War was released in 2020.

You can listen to the episode here:

About Sarah LeFanu

Sarah lives near Bristol in North Somerset and is a biographer whose subjects include the English writer and traveller Rose Macaulay; Samora Machel, the liberation leader and first president of Mozambique; and Marjorie Blandy, one of the early women who qualified as a doctor and who went to France in 1914 with the Women’s Hospital Corps.

More recently, Sarah added Conan Doyle to her growing list of subjects when he featured as one of three writers in Sarah’s group biography, Something of Themselves: Kipling, Kingsley, Conan Doyle and the Anglo-Boer War, which was published in 2020 and the following year shortlisted for the prestigious Elizabeth Longford Prize for historical biography.

She has recently completed an account of her research and writing of that book, which will be published in October this year - Talking to the Dead: Travels of a Biographer.


Something of Themselves: Kipling, Kingsley, Conan Doyle and the Anglo-Boer War (Hurst Publishing, 2020)

In early 1900, the paths of three British writers—Rudyard Kipling, Mary Kingsley and Arthur Conan Doyle—crossed in South Africa, during what has become known as Britain’s last imperial war. Each of the three had pressing personal reasons to leave England behind, but they were also motivated by notions of duty, service, patriotism and, in Kipling’s case, jingoism.

Sarah LeFanu compellingly opens an unexplored chapter of these writers’ lives, at a turning point for Britain and its imperial ambitions. Was the South African War, as Kipling claimed, a dress rehearsal for the Armageddon of World War One? Or did it instead foreshadow the anti-colonial guerrilla wars of the later twentieth century?

Weaving a rich and varied narrative, LeFanu charts the writers’ paths in the theatre of war, and explores how this crucial period shaped their cultural legacies, their shifting reputations, and their influence on colonial policy. (Source).

You can purchase the book from the publisher here.

Coming soon: Talking to the Dead: Travels of a Biographer (SilverWood Books, released 27 October 2023)

In 2020 the former Women’s Press editor and literary critic Sarah LeFanu published her group biography of three British writers and their travels to South Africa in the closing days of the Victorian era, Something of Themselves: Kipling, Kingsley, Conan Doyle and the Anglo-Boer War, which was shortlisted for the Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography.

Talking to the Dead: Travels of a Biographer is a journal that covers the five years (2015–2020) of her research and writing, taking her from libraries and archives in England to old battle sites in South Africa, and recording her conversations with the living and the dead. Talking to the Dead is about South Africa then and now, about Britain then and now, about imperialism and the beginning of its end, about the biographical process, and also, intertwined with these subjects, about the experience of living with the painful chronic condition polymyalgia rheumatica.

For life writers, for lovers of historical biography, for all readers of Rudyard Kipling, Mary Kingsley and Arthur Conan Doyle. (Source).

You can purchase the book from the publisher here.

Other works by Sarah LeFanu

Rose Macaulay: A Biography (SilverWood Books, 2013)

Dreaming of Rose: A Biographer’s Journal (Handheld Press, 2021)

S is for Samora: A Lexical Biography of Samora Machel and the Mozambican Dream (Hurst Publishers 2012)

In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction (SilverWood Books, 2012)

Related episodes of Doings of Doyle

We briefly discussed the case of George Edalji with Sarah. You can find out more in our interview with Shrabani Basu, author of The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyer (2021), in Episode 16.

Next time on Doings of Doyle

Our return to Baker Street coincides with that of Sherlock Holmes in ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’ (1903). You can read the story here: https://www.arthur-conan-doyle.com/index.php/The_Adventure_of_the_Empty_House


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Image credits: Thanks to Alexis Barquin at The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopaedia for permission to reproduce these images. Please support the encyclopaedia at www.arthur-conan-doyle.com.

Music credit: Sneaky Snitch Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com). Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

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