Something of Themselves

Kipling, Kingsley, Conan Doyle and the Anglo-Boer War

Sarah LeFanu

A thoughtful biography tracing the paths of three literary greats through a turbulent period in Britain’s imperial history.

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Something of Themselves Hardback
February 2020£25

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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.


Sarah LeFanu's books include Rose Macaulay and S is for Samora: A Lexical Biography of Samora Machel and the Mozambican Dream. Formerly an editor at The Women’s Press, and artistic director of the Bath Literature Festival (2004–9), she regularly chairs events for the Bristol Festival of Ideas and Bristol Women’s Literature Festival and blogs at


‘LeFanu has written a highly original, thought-provoking and insightful study of three great writers at a moment of imperial crisis. [This is] a sensitive, multilayered book.’ — The Telegraph

‘[Something of Themselves comprises] excellent analysis … Throughout, [LeFanu] provides insights into the writings of her subjects … the mixture of well-digested detail and emotional understanding is pleasing.’ — The Spectator

‘In Something of Themselves, [LeFanu] places Kipling alongside Arthur Conan Doyle and Mary Kingsley at the center of a fascinating study recounting their experiences in the Boer War, a conflict that all three witnessed at close hand.’ — The Wall Street Journal

‘[An] ambitious but compelling biographical work. … There is as much joy in it for readers as there are lessons for writers … magisterial.’ — The Telegraph (India)

‘How the Anglo-Boer War was ­written about had profound social and political ­effects. LeFanu makes a valuable contribution to our understanding.’ — The New Statesman

‘A brilliantly insightful, very moving examination of three writers on the battlefield. LeFanu reveals each of her subjects to be engaged in his or her own private war, at the same time as they participated in the war that came to define the cruelty and confusion of the British Empire.’ — Lara Feigel, author of Free Woman; The Bitter Taste of Victory; and The Love-charm of Bombs

‘Imaginatively conceived, meticulously researched and subtly narrated, Something of Themselves is not only a biographical treasure trove but also offers fresh insights into that charged moment when the writing was at last firmly on the wall for old-style British imperialism.’ — David Kynaston, author of City of London: The History