Beryl Markham (1902-1986)

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Getting to know British pioneer aviator, Beryl Markham, came about in a roundabout way. The first instance came this summer when I was attracted to the cover and bought a copy of Paula McLain’s 2016 best seller, Circling the Sun. Blending fact with fiction, her prose aroused the stunning setting of 1920s Kenya with authenticity.

Do you recommend 'The Paris Wife'?
Do you recommend ‘The Paris Wife’?

As I read the novel, I vaguely remembered it was based on a true person. About half way through the story, the life of Beryl Markham began to feel like an epic romance novel, something from Margaret Mitchell’s imagination, the heroine’s life too outlandish to believe. The ingredients included the British Royalty, Kenyan tribes, eccentric personalities and their parties, horse breeders, big game hunting, love triangles, Beryl’s swinging passions between horses, men, and aviation. Include other associations such as coffee-plantation owner Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke whose memoir Out of Africa(1937) inspired me long ago. It followed with the film adaptation in 1985 starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford–still one of the best films of that decade. After reading Circling the Sun, I itched to read Beryl Markham’s memoir; a colleague passed along her copy to me three years ago. West with the Night was one of those books I knew I needed to read, but it collected dust on my bookshelf instead.

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West with the Night, published in 1942 did not do well at first publication. Thanks in part to Ernest Hemingway, his praise for her writing precipitated the second publication forty years later with success. She was four when her family moved to Kenya from Britain. Raised by her father, she learned to ride and train horses and became the first licensed female to train horses in Kenya. In the 1920s, her relationship with the dashing Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford’s character in Out of the Africa) inspired her into aviation. In 1936, she became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from east (Abingdon, England) to west (Nova Scotia).

Over the years, critics have raised doubts whether her beautiful prose was an original effort or perhaps shaped in part with her third husband, Raoul Schumacher. Regardless of the controversy, I’d like to think the descriptions and tales of Africa–the animals, the horses, and the people, like her wise childhood friend, Kibbi were expressed by her. Here is a hefty sentence, a sampling of her writing from West with the Night (160):

The shores of its lake are rich in silence, lonely with it, but the monotonous flats of sand and mud that circle the shallow water are relieved of dullness, not by only an occasional bird or flock of birds or by a hundred birds; as long as the day lasts Nakuru is no lake at all, but a crucible of pink and crimson fire–each of its flames, its million flames, struck from the wings of a flamingo. 

I remember in the film Out of Africa, the birds played a symbolic role romanticizing the beauty of Kenya. In Paula McClain’s novel, she includes this scene of flamingos, and the imagery stands out. I recommend all of it: Paula McClain’s Circling the Sun; Beryl Merkham’s West with the Night; Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa, and if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you watch the film version. These leading women were fierce individualists and trailblazers.

Here’s an interesting article with Paula McClain about Circling the Sun. You can read it  HERE.

One of my favorite scenes from the film Out of Africa. It’s no wonder Beryl loved to fly. Ahh, that score by John Barry!

27 thoughts on “Beryl Markham (1902-1986)

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  1. Too many years ago to remember, I read Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Listen, the Wind. I wonder how Beryl Markham’s West with the Night compares? I read Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa while helping to bring a salmon troller south from Icy Strait, Alaska at season’s end. What an incongruous setting in which to read such a book, but I digress . . . Yes, if you haven’t seen the movie Out of Africa, by all means watch it. I do at least once a year. Turn up the volume and immerse yourself in the movie’s score.

    1. Welcome, yes, the score never gets old. Alaska and Africa. Ha! That is disparate. Please consider West with the Night if you liked Blixen. They were neighbors and friends. In the book out of Africa, Felicity was the code word for Beryl Markham. You’ve got me interested in Listen, the Wind. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Hi! There’s a slight problem with the article with Paula McClain about Circling the Sun. My computer won’t show it, just a message saying “This page can’t be displayed”.

  3. I had been to Kenya by the time I saw the film, and it represented the feel of that country so well. I had also read the book and enjoyed it, but despite adoring the film too (mainly for the stunning visuals) I had a real issue with Streep’s Danish/English accent. ” I hed a famm in Aaaarfrikka.” We used to laugh at that a lot, and every time Kenya was mentioned, either myself or my wife would immediately say that. Just an aside…
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. Ha, ha. I thought it was one of her best roles. Since I don’t know what a Danish/English accent sounds like, I assumed she was doing it right! As far as reading goes, you might enjoy McClain’s fiction; or, try out West with the Night. You’ve been to Kenya. I’m jealous, you world traveler. But you’ve never been to the States???

      1. There are six parts to this!
        https://beetleypete.wordpress.com/2014/12/30/holidays-and-travel-kenya-1983-part-one/
        This was something I wrote about why I have never been to the US. Please don’t take it personally…
        https://beetleypete.wordpress.com/2013/02/15/life-without-america/
        And I am also unsure what a ‘normal’ Danish/English accent is like, to be honest. I just don’t think it sounds much like Meryl in the film.
        Best wishes as always, Pete.

  4. Oooh I LOVE that book cover of Circling the Sun. These books sound like something I’d enjoy Cindy, thanks for bringing them to my attention. There’s something so intriguing about female aviators, that’s why I rented ‘The Last Flight’ w/ Marion Cotillard a while ago but sadly the film was underwhelming. Btw I absolutely adore John Barry’s work and that Out of Africa score is one of my all time faves!

      1. Very cool! I’m still deep in ‘Richard The Third’ right now, a fascinating biography and historical account of his life. But I’ll definitely consider ‘Circling the Sun’ when I’m done.

  5. Thanks for the excellent post. I just learned something new! I didn’t know anything about Markham, but I’m a great admirer of Pancho Barnes (have you seen the movie The Right Stuff? I think Kim Stanley plays her). Barnes was a true trailblazer. A great role model for both men and women. And yes, Out of Africa is a great film about a fascinating woman.

    1. That they were friends and part of a love triangle is intriguing as a side plot taking second to Beryl’s many accomplishments. I haven’t been so inspired by a woman since I read ‘Desert Queen’. Which reminds me I need to watch the film version ‘Queen of the Desert’ which came out in 2015 with Herzog directing, but I don’t recall much press or reviews. I love Gertrude Bell. 🙂 Thanks, Eric, for stopping by today.

  6. Interesting. I must admit to my complete ignorance on the topic. The name “Beryl Markham” didn’t even ring a bell. It is too bad, because I find the 20s and 30s interesting (more in books than in films). I will see if our library has anything about her (preferably “West with the Night.”

    1. Hi, yes! I feel the same way. I love everything about the time period and so I was embarrassed I knew nothing about her until recently. I should think your library has something to do with Beryl. Good luck!

  7. Thank you so much for these fine reading recommendations. I adored Out Of Africa, and have continued to watch it every time it shows up on the telly.
    This was just an excellent post, including the inclusion of the movie clip. Watching is a meditative pause. Thank you. 📬

  8. I happened to be in the market for a novel and got Circling from the library. What beautiful writing. I’m thrilled each time I find someone who knows what she’s doing with her words. So happy for the introduction.

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