“A life has to move or it stagnates. Even this life, I think. Every tomorrow ought not to resemble every yesterday.” Beryl Markham
If you want one last, lush, escapist summer read, consider Circling the Sun by Paula McLain, a fictionalized account of the life of Beryl Markham, the first woman to fly across the Atlantic from east to west.
Born in England and raised in Kenya, Markham was a larger-than-life adventuress and socialite – a renowned horse trainer, an accomplished bush pilot, perpetually in the spotlight of gossip and scandal.
Especially if you’re a woman of a certain age, you might remember the romantic Out of Africa, a 1985 movie based on the memoir by Dutch writer Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), who for some years ran a coffee plantation near Nairobi. Karen, played by Meryl Streep, had a long-term affair with charismatic safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford.) Denys had the power to make women of the day swoon, but was adamantly against commitment and marriage. Karen and Beryl became friends, and Beryl went on to have a secret, short-lived affair with Denys.
Though Beryl married three times and had other lovers – allegedly one of them Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester – many believe that Denys Hatton was the true love of her life. Author Paula McLain is adept at writing about affairs of the heart – she did a masterful job in depicting Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage in The Paris Wife – and she depicts Beryl’s affair with Denys in a sympathetic light, while plumbing the depths of the friendship between Beryl and Karen, who were in many respects kindred spirits even though they loved the same man.
I enjoy Cleveland-based author Paula McLain’s writing. She was drawn to Beryl Markham’s story when she learned that Beryl’s mother abandoned her at the age of four, only to reappear again when Beryl was twenty – which is exactly what happened to Paula McLain. She calls it a “shared emotional genealogy.” McLain writes with particular authenticity and empathy as she explores the lifelong effects, both good and bad, of maternal abandonment.
Despite Beryl’s remarkable feat of aviation, there isn’t a whole lot about flying in this novel. McLain instead focuses on the first half of Beryl’s life – her remarkable childhood in Kenya as she grew up next door to and on an intimate basis with the Kipsigis tribes, and her years spent learning and perfecting her horse training skills. McLain portrays Beryl’s love of Kenya in lyrical prose that will cast a spell over you if you love exotic lands and nature still relatively unspoiled by the ravages of civilization.
I think that one of Paula McLain’s strengths is her depiction of remarkable women who have not received the attention they deserve. As I read, I chafed at the difficult lot of women in Beryl Markham’s time. In the 1930s, many women still survived by making a good marriage. In both The Paris Wife and Circling the Sun there is a distinct feminist subtext.
I’m now inclined to read Beryl’s memoir, West With the Night, which didn’t initially receive the acclaim that Dinesen’s memoir, Out of Africa, did, though it sold well when it was later republished. Some believe that Beryl’s third husband, a journalist, wrote the memoir, though I almost hesitate to write about what could be a sexist rumor. Maybe it doesn’t matter – Beryl Markham lived a remarkable life that many a man and woman envy. Ernest Hemingway had this to say about West With the Night:
“Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West with the Night? …She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers … it really is a bloody wonderful book.”
In Circling the Sun, Beryl says this about her lover, Denys:
“More than anyone I’d known, Denys understood how nothing ever holds still for us, or should. The trick is learning to take things as they come and fully, too, with no resistance or fear, not trying to grip them too tightly or make them bend.”
The publisher kindly provided an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) of Circling the Sun.