Everyone instantly recognized Deny's greatness, insists Wheeler, even though he achieved nothing. "Denys was a great figure," according to his obituary in Eton's magazine, "not only to Masters and boys, but to the Eton population at large, human and animal." (p. 34 (emphasis added).)
Eton's magazine is not alone in promoting the absurd notion that the animal kingdom hailed Denys' greatness. In Out of Africa, Karen Blixen reported that "'[a] lion and lioness have come [to Finch-Hatton's grave], and stood, or lain, on the grave for a long time.' . . . It was fit and decorous that the lions should come to Denys's grave and make him an African monument." (p. 308.)
But, by the end of his life (short, but still 44 years), Denys had accomplished nothing. "In terms of a career -- positions held, books published, the shibboleths of success one lists in Who's Who -- there was nothing," admits Wheeler. He left behind no written record, no diary, no significant letters. Perhaps his most enduring legacy is of the abortions and miscarriages that Beryl Markham and Karen Blixen had respectively, carrying children for whom he showed no inclination to take responsibility. "It's not clear what he ever did to merit a biography of his own," adds Nicholas Best, reviewing Too Close to the Sun for The Observer.
Plainly, when people characterized Denys as "great," they were responding not to his accomplishments, but to his place in the (waning) aristocracy. "He was the Last Edwardian Male," wrote Florence Williams, in a New York Times book review.
This use of "greatness" to invoke the aristocratic is both imprecise and not, in my view, without harm. Great people are worth our time; alive or dead, kind or mean, great people have something to teach us. Whatever their personal natures, great people have contributed something to society and human existence. Greatness, despite the costs, ought to be encouraged.
Aristocrats, on the other hand, are people who have convinced themselves and the rest of the population that they have an entitlement to wealth, based on their cultural superiority and proximity to a divine monarch. Though this class of individuals, like any strata of social organization, has something to teach us about human nature, individual aristocrats (potentially Denys among them) are often privileged wastrels, fungible in their educational value. They have not invariably contributed something to society and, as a group, they are not necessarily normatively valuable. (While, anecdotally, culture typically flourishes in aristocratic societies, the cost-benefit equation doesn't compare favorably to non-totalitarian societies in which the government substitutes as patron.)
But regardless of the larger issues at stake in conflating a romanticized notion of aristocracy with genuinely great achievement, Denys Finch-Hatton is an easy case: he was unquestionably artistocratic; he was also, unquestionably, not great. Sara Wheeler does him no favors by wrapping him in a mantle that's too broad for his shoulders: doing so only makes the man look small.
(Photo courtesy of The New York Times.)