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!

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