Elspeth Huxley and Reading: fact versus fiction

‘Writers must learn pretty quickly to disguise what they’re doing if they don’t want to end up in the libel courts.’ (Val McDermid, 2023)

My previous post about Elspeth Huxley dealt with her time at Reading as it was portrayed in the book, Love among the Daughters’. Her description of Reading and the London Road Campus was far from flattering.

The reviews and notices of the work label it ‘non-fiction’ even though it bears many characteristics of a novel. In the Evening News of 26th Sept. 1968 it was already listed fourth in the non-fiction best sellers; the following month it was ranked first, ahead of Kim Philby’s ‘My Silent War: the Autobiography of a Spy’ (there are those who claim that this contained elements of fiction, too). And in an interview with The Times on 16th September 1968, Huxley described it as autobiography. Nevertheless, it is generally regarded as an example of ‘fictionalised autobiography’, a genre in which changes to details of real people, places and events do not detract from the authenticity of the account.

There are several reasons to question the accuracy of the narrative:

    • a gap of over 40 years between the events described and publication;
    • changes calculated to avoid offending people who were still alive;
    • exaggeration and caricature for comic effect (the humour is a recurring theme of the book reviews; Christine Nichols, Huxley’s biographer, regarded it as one of her wittiest books);
    • Huxley’s own statements about her recollections;
    • discrepancies with historical records.

In August 1968 Huxley was interviewed on BBC Woman’s Hour by Marjorie Anderson. Here she gave a far more nuanced explanation of ‘autobiography’ than in her Times interview:

‘Well, it’s an autobiography in a sense, but it’s more of a recreation, more of a reconstruction of the period and of the impressions one had of life at that age than it is a chronological series of actual events. I don’t pretend to remember conversations which one had forty years ago, so one recreates the conversations, trying to make them true to the people one was conversing with – I mean one tries to create the atmosphere, but it’s much more of a creation of atmosphere than a chronicle.’ (Recorded 9th August 1968; broadcast 18th September 1968).

She further revealed that she never kept a diary but did have some notes that she made at Cornell and some old photographs.

Huxley’s Family

Elspeth stayed with her aunt, uncle and cousins on arrival in England and during the vacations. Although these periods have little relevance to her time in Reading, the treatment of her relatives illustrates her approach.

Gertrude, Kate and Joanna are the children of Aunt Madge and Uncle Jack. They are Elspeth’s cousins and ‘the daughters’ of the book’s title. All the above names are  pseudonyms, as is the case with other relatives and acquaintances.

Cousin Gertrude is a superficial 1920s flapper; Kate got herself expelled from her convent school for various crimes such as running a book on racehorses; Joanna, the youngest, attends a ‘smart’ school in Suffolk; Aunt Madge descends into weeks-long silent sulks; and the idiosyncratic, bigoted Uncle Jack seems angry, disapproving and withdrawn except when reminiscing about his regiment.

These caricatures are accompanied by other family members such as Aunt Lilli and Uncle Rufus (a less well-suited couple it is hardly possible to imagine), not to mention the bottom-pinching Lord Fulbright who insists on taking young women skating, and the withered Russian countess with a constipated parrot that attacks people’s ankles.

It is in such stereotypes, and those of some of the personalities at Reading, that much of the humour lies. It must be said, however, that some of the witty features that thrilled the critics of 1968 are far less hilarious for the modern reader – Lord Fulbright comes across as a sinister predator rather than an amiable eccentric; the casual racism and antisemitism in language and attitudes, the snobbery and patronising colonial attitudes, even if they accurately reflect and satirise the views of a particular section of society in the 1920s, can still come as a shock.

In Elspeth Huxley: a biography, Christine Nicholls documents the extent to which changes had to be made to avoid offending  living family members. In particular, the real-life Joanna didn’t want her daughter to know about her youthful indiscretions. Joanna’s adventurous character was therefore transferred to Kate, and references to drugs, illegitimacy and an abortion were deleted.

Reading and the College/University

In his master’s thesis, Richard Keefe confirms some details in the book, but also notes factual errors: the number of Women’s halls of residence, the size of the student population and the ratio of male to female students. Huxley claimed that ‘Girls were in the fortunate position of being heavily outnumbered by men’ (p. 48), whereas in fact the opposite was true. This misconception, which was perpetuated in the book reviews, and even her biography, must have resulted from Huxley’s experience among predominantly male Agriculture students.

Elspeth’s gloomy perception of the campus and its buildings contrasts sharply with that of Edith Morley (‘These extensive and beautifully laid out grounds’, 1944/2016, p. 111) and with the ambition of W. M. Childs, Reading’s first Vice-Chancellor, ‘to make a place of sojourn for impressionable youth’ (1933, p. 51). In his history of the first 50 years of Reading University, J. C. Holt (1977) concludes that Huxley’s views could be neither ignored nor dismissed – an objective judgement was impossible.

However, in the BBC interview, when Marjorie Anderson queried the dreariness of Reading and the wisdom of educating young people in dreary surroundings, Huxley appeared to attribute this to the town rather than the University:

‘Oh I don’t think I found it dreary myself. I thoroughly enjoyed it.’

Huxley’s Fellow Students

The pseudonyms of the students who figure most centrally are: 

    • Dando: female, a Dairying student who played lacrosse;
    • Thomas: male ‘an athlete and a hockey star’, Dando’s friend;
    • Snugg: female, a third-year student, housemate of Huxley;
    • Turner: male, Rugger Captain, Snugg’s friend;
    •  Corbett: male, Cricket Captain;
    • Viney: male, captain in the Officers Training Corps, and member of the University’s rowing eight;
    • Swift: female, Fine Arts student, housemate of Huxley;
    • Abdul: male, studying Commerce, Swift’s friend, described as ‘a swarthy, sleek-haired Oriental of some kind’, p. 59); the only foreign student, and the only student referred to by his first name;
    • Nash: male, member of the Dramatic Society and Labour Club – an outsider because of his politics and background.

Thomas, Turner, Corbett and Viney made up the self-styled Philosophers Club, an all-male clique who ‘sat together in the Buttery, drank together in the pub, … shared a boat on the river, [went on] jaunts to London to see a show.’ (p. 53).

Following a careful analysis of student records and having spotted how Huxley transposed letters in people’s names, Richard Keefe is confident that he has identified the students on which the characters of Snugg and Turner were based.

Of Snugg, Huxley writes that she:

‘… gave herself airs, and was apt to introduce into conversations topics like hunt balls, point-to-points, first nights, presentations at court and cousins in the Foreign Office’ (p. 51).

All of which was greeted with scepticism because she came from Birmingham. Richard Keefe suggests that the real Snugg was Marjorie Hope Scutt, born in 1906, a student of Fine Art (Diploma), Embroidery (Certificate) and Leatherwork (Certificate).

Huxley sums up Turner as:

‘… not only lord of the [Rugby] Fifteen but he was reading agriculture, had a job lined up in the colonies, held office in the Students’ Union, and was said to drink a lot of beer ; so he was one of the social princes. (p. 50).

Turner was due to spend the next year in Trinidad as training for the Colonial Service and is identified by Keefe as George R. Parker, a Wantage Hall student (1924-26).

Turner’s intended career seems typical of what Huxley claims for the majority of agriculture students at Reading – they would never dirty their hands ploughing or hoeing, but would join local authorities or become agricultural officers and District Commissioners somewhere in the Empire, enjoying the benefits of servants, plenty of leave, good pay and a generous pension after only 25 years.

The Academic Staff

While it takes detective work to identify the students in the book, Huxley’s lecturers in the Agriculture Department are immediately recognisable. One, Professor Sidney Pennington, is even mentioned by his real name – there was no need for a pseudonym because she held him in high regard –  he was a practical person who could turn his hand to real farm work. This should not surprise us as, before his promotion, the College had appointed him farm manager in 1914.

One observation that finds an echo in the University’s Photographic Collection is that ‘the professor was accompanied everywhere by a small and shaggy white terrier’ (p. 69).

Shows the dog
Prof Sidney Pennington with his West Highland terrier on Lane End Farm, Shinfield (University of Reading Special Collections)

Huxley’s other lecturer was ‘Our Dean’, unnamed but obviously H. A. D. Neville, professor of Agricultural Chemistry and Dean of Agriculture since 1920. He is not named in the book, presumably because his description is less complimentary:

‘… a small, squat, ugly, rather savage Midlander who taught biochemistry, spitting out the formulae  as if they had been so many oaths …’ (p. 116).

Prof H. A. D. Neville (University of Reading Special Collections)

The Intermingling of Fact and Fiction

According to Huxley’s biographer, the detail in Love among the Daughters’ cannot be entirely trusted:

‘What Elspeth did was to portray locations accurately, but conceal the truth about events and people who were still alive. She would often transfer a remembered incident to a different time, and always amalgamated or distorted characters so that there was no danger of libel.’ (Nichols, 2002, p. 82)

Nevertheless, as Antonia Fraser suggested in the Sunday Times (22nd September 1968), Huxley skilfully negotiated the blending of fact and fiction such that the reader understood far more of the social history of the period than through academic study.


The BBC copyright content is reproduced courtesy of the British Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.

Thanks also to Penguin Random House for permission to access the Review File for ‘Love among the Daughters’ and to use the quotations from the Woman’s Hour interview.

Many thanks to Richard Keefe for giving me a copy of his master’s thesis.


Childs, W. M. (1933). Making a university: an account of the university movement at Reading. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd.

Holt, J. C. (1977). The University of Reading: the first fifty years. Reading: University of Reading Press.

Huxley, E. J. (1968). Love among the daughters. London: Chatto & Windus.

Keefe, R. (2022). History, Big Data and changes in the University of Reading / University College Reading’s Student Population over time (1908-1972). Unpublished Master’s Thesis, University of Reading.

McDermid, V. (2023). Past lying. London: Sphere.

Morley, E. J. (2016). Before and after: reminiscences of a working life (original text of 1944 edited by Barbara Morris). Reading: Two Rivers Press.

Nichols, C. S. (2002). Elspeth Huxley: a biography. London: Harper Collins.

University College Reading, Calendar, 1925-6.

University of Reading, Calendars, 1926-27 & 1927-28.

University of Reading Special Collections. Review file for ‘Love among the Daughters’ by Elspeth Huxley. Reference number: CW R/4/40 [also containing interviews with the author and BBC broadcasts – BBC copyright content is reproduced courtesy of the British Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved].

University of Reading Special Collections. University History MS 5305 Photographs – Portraits Boxes 1 & 2.

Elspeth Huxley at Reading

‘It seemed to rain a great deal in Reading.’ (Elspeth Huxley, ‘Love among the Daughters’, p. 58)

Elspeth Huxley, born Elspeth Grant in 1907, was an agriculture student at Reading in the 1920s. Earlier posts on this blog have mentioned her ‘approved lodgings’ and her description of the Great Hall as ‘a sort of outsize garden shed’.

There are so many facets to Huxley’s life that it is hard to sum her up. She was a prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction, travel-writer, journalist, broadcaster, agriculturist and environmentalist. She was esteemed as an expert on African affairs and was invited onto the Monckton Commission which reviewed the constitution of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in 1960.

Huxley in Kenya
Elspeth Huxley plays a mancala game with two Kikuyu men at Njoro, Kenya in the 1930s (British Empire & Commonwealth Collection at Bristol Archives: BECC 1995/076/1/2/27)

In 1925 at the age of 18 she left her parents’ coffee plantation in Kenya and headed for England to begin two years as a student of Agriculture at Reading. She arrived during the period when the University College was being transformed into the University of Reading but, as far as I can tell, she made no mention of this in her writing or later interviews.

The University’s official record of her is sparse but there are two relevant entries in the University’s annual report for 1926-27: she was awarded the Diploma in Agriculture, Division I (‘Subject to completion of farm work’) and was the recipient of the Leonard Sutton Prize for Agriculture.

In an interview for the Bristol Museum in 1994, nearly 70 years later, the period at Reading was dismissed with no more than a cursory mention:

‘I left [Kenya] when I was 18 to get a bit of education as they thought, because I hadn’t had any to note.’ 

Nevertheless, it was a sufficiently important landmark in her life that she devoted six chapters to it in her autobiographical narrative ‘Love among the Daughters’.

‘Love among the Daughters’

This was Huxley’s 26th book. published in 1968 and serialised on BBC’s Woman’s Hour the following year. It was the third autobiographical volume recounting her early life and followed ‘The Flame Trees of Thika’ (1959) and ‘The Mottled Lizard’ (1962), accounts of her childhood in Africa. ‘The Flame Trees of Thika’ was made into a seven-part series by Thames TV in 1981.

The daughters of the title are Elspeth’s cousins, given the pseudonyms Gertrude, Kate and Joanna. They are the children of her ‘Aunt Madge’ and ‘Uncle Jack’ with whom she stayed on arrival in the UK and during the vacations.

The book is a chronological account of her time at Reading followed by a year at Cornell University in the USA. It is interspersed with witty descriptions of her eccentric relatives and their acquaintances. Huxley, newly arrived from the colonies, is the naive outsider, like an anthropologist observing the customs of a remote tribe, delicately negotiating English society with its house parties, fox hunting and intimidating servants. The same sense of puzzlement imbues her academic life – Reading was ‘honeycombed with subtle snobberies’ – while her first weeks at Cornell with its sororities and complex course structures were a bewildering sequence of events over which she appeared to have little control.

An interesting feature is her perspective on the relative merits of university life in England and the USA. Although she enjoyed her time at Cornell and appreciated closer relationships with professors and lecturers, she was less impressed by the academic culture – her courses were like an assembly line. They were were hard work – intensive and highly structured, and the examinations were memory tests:

‘Facts were black and white, not grey. The fuzziness was gone. The English ambiguity had annoyed me but now I missed it… The aim here was to answer questions; there [at Reading] to ask them.’ (p. 167).

The theme of university life in the States is one she had originally addressed in an article submitted to Tamesis, the College Magazine, in autumn 1927 – these were still her earliest impressions and focused on the size of the institution, the social life, fraternities, football games and the diversity of subjects on offer. Nevertheless, she had already made up her mind that:

‘Education slavishly follows set lines: whereas personal freedom is almost unlimited, intellectual bondage is complete.’ (Huxley, 1927, p. 12)

The Depiction of Reading in ‘Love among the Daughters’

The town of Reading with its ‘unpretentious’ College/University was always destined to be a disappointment.

‘No one would believe [Reading] had a university.’ (pp. 24-5)

Elspeth’s dream had been Oxford or Cambridge but a lack of Latin gave her little choice:

‘no one would be at Reading if he could possibly have got a place at Oxford’ (p. 60)

Some of her first impressions of the campus and its surroundings are recorded on page 47:

    • ‘London Road was not as squalid as some of the neighbouring streets… little dwellings dark with grime’;
    • Close by was ‘the Royal Berkshire Hospital, which looked more like a university than that establishment itself.’;
    • The campus sported ‘an ugly clock tower’;
    • ‘The whole place had a newly spawned and makeshift appearance and lacked dignity, coherence or style.’;
    • The lobby was ‘much less imposing than the booking hall of any small country station.’.

Elsewhere she refers to ‘the dark back-streets of Reading wet with drizzle’ (p. 122) and contemplates the rumour that Reading was the second most immoral city in England (second only to Nottingham!).

On a lighter note, she writes of college dances, learning the tango, walks by the Thames, teas in Sonning and the Henley Regatta. She provides pen portraits of her lecturers and fellow students. Despite the alleged immorality of the town, relationships between female and male students were chaste, not for moral or religious reasons but simply because of a ‘lack of facilities’:

‘What could we do on a muddy tow-path in a wet gale on a Sunday Evening swathed in macs and blue with cold, even when strengthened by iced cakes?’ (p. 64)

Her academic studies centred on the biological sciences combined with practical farm work:

‘we spent many wet, cold and inconclusive afternoons trudging round the university farm learning how to mark out a field for ploughing, to distinguish Yorkshire fog from cocksfoot and sainfoin from broad red clover, to master the show points of bulls, cows, pigs and fat bullocks, and to calculate the areas of fields.’ (p. 117)

Studying the natural sciences was a new experience for her, and something of a revelation. She seems barely able to contain her enthusiasm for areas of biology, zoology and bacteriology such as the life of the liver fluke or the structure of a stamen.

The Book Reviews

The University of Reading’s Special Collections holds 35 pages of press cuttings containing reviews, publisher’s announcements and interviews with the author, all relating to ‘Love among the Daughters’.

The reviews tend to focus on the eccentricities of Huxley’s relatives and acquaintances and upper-class rural life spent hunting and shooting. Those that deal in any depth with Reading University echo the drabness and gloom of Huxley’s description, the petty bourgeois snobbery and student poverty.

Huxley’s time at Cornell receives far less attention, except from reviews in The New York Times and The Irish Times; a BBC Radio 4 broadcast on ‘Today from the South and West’ cut the whole section on Elspeth’s time in the US from the original script.

Several reviewers mention, or deplore, the role of students in helping to break the General Strike of 1926 believing that they were saving the nation. It was an event that Huxley herself looks back on with embarrassment at the political naivety of herself and her friends: ‘overnight the students became a reservoir of scabs’ (p. 138).

Huxley’s biographer, Christine Nicholls, claims that the critics were unanimous in their praise of the book, and while it is true that the response was overwhelmingly positive, there were a few reservations. Christopher Wordsworth in The Observer (29/9/68) suggested that the comedy was overdone. Others questioned the accuracy of Huxley’s memory and disputed the amount of rain that fell on the town.

A future post will address some of the aspects of ‘Love among the Daughters’ that may leave modern readers feeling distinctly uncomfortable, and consider the historical accuracy of a work that was written some four decades after the events depicted.


To Thomas Birkhead at the Penguin Random House archive for permission to access the Review File for ‘Love among the daughters’ and to Jayne Pucknell, Senior Archivist at the Bristol Archives, for the transcript of Huxley’s 1994 interview and the photograph of her in Kenya.


Bristol Archives. Interview with Mrs Elspeth Huxley in Oaksey on 7th March 1994. Reference: BECC OH 0114.

Huxley, E. J. (1927). I’ll tell the world! Impressions of an American university. Tamesis: The Official Organ of the Students’ Union of the University of Reading, Vol. XXVI, Autumn Term, No. 1, pp. 11-13.

Huxley, E. J. (1968). Love among the daughters. London: Chatto & Windus.

Nicholls, C. S. (2002). Elspeth Huxley: a biography. London: Harper Collins.

University College Reading, Calendar, 1925-6.

University of Reading, Calendars, 1926-27 & 1927-28.

University of Reading. Proceedings of the University, 1926-27.

University of Reading Special Collections. Review file for ‘Love among the Daughters’ by Elspeth Huxley. Reference number: CW R/4/40.