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Beryl Markham : The Splendid Outcast

Circling the SunPaula McLain’’s well- written second book, Circling The Sun, a biography-as-fiction of Beryl Markham, aviator, horse-trainer, free woman, adventurer, leaves me with the same kind of uneasy questions as did her first novel, The Paris Wife, another biography-as-fiction about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson. Those questions are about the ethics of biography-as-fiction, particularly with those who may have still living children.

Biography itself may of course be flawed, even ‘facts’ are subject to interpretation, but the general tenet of a good biography is not to assume the fictional mantle of identifying what the subject was thinking and feeling – unless of course they left evidence of this, or perhaps there was a third party who reported conversations and recollections (those these of course may be subjectively and selectively filtered by that third party)

The problem (and of course the beauty) of biography as fiction is that the fiction writer deals in what a character feels and thinks, not merely what they do, or have done to them by others. The adding of the fiction writer’s inventive, empathetic, imaginative skills to ‘real’ people, makes the fiction biography SEEM more real than the objectively researched biography, merely reporting verifiable facts. This is precisely because we are taken into the added dimension of understanding and thinking and feeling what a person is like, which the fiction writer has imagined, invented, supposed, and which has been filtered through their own sensibilities.

Beryl Markham

Beryl Markham was an unusually bold, free-spirited woman, even amongst the adventurous time and place which was the British ex-pat community of British East Africa between the wars. Born Beryl Clutterbuck, the daughter of a racehorse trainer, the family emigrated from England when she was 4. At a remarkably young age, barely out of her teens, she was forcing her way into the world of racehorse training under her own steam. This was a male-only commercial activity, and Beryl was the first woman in Kenya to gain a license to train horses – something she continued to do until her 80s. In 1936 she achieved another first, after discovering another passion – flying. She was the first woman to make the solo Atlantic flight from East to West – that is, against the prevailing winds. The first solo Atlantic crossing by a female, Amelia Earhart, from West to East, WITH the winds, had happened 4 years earlier. Earhart of course became a symbol and a figurehead. She mysteriously died young, when, on another flight, her plane disappeared. She was also a woman who undoubtedly did good works, and channelled her adventurous, free-spirit into activities which were of use to society at large – promoting both flying itself and training and championing other female aviators. Markham’s rackety personal life was probably in part responsible for her fall into obscurity

Beryl Markham, triumphant after completing her Transatlantic flight, complete with landing injury

Beryl Markham, triumphant after completing her Transatlantic flight, complete with landing injury

My unease with McLain’s book is this : had this been a fiction about invented people ‘like’ Beryl Markham, Denys Finch-Hatton, Karen Blixen and the rest – using different names, with an explanation that it was closely modelled on known events of their lives, I would absolutely, unreservedly, have five starred this. But the presentation is that this is true, because the events are true – it is an ‘as if’ biography. I was really interested to find out more about Markham, and what I found seemed to make her an even more interesting and far more complicated – and – perhaps, a less admirable (according to our morality) character than McLain makes her. For example, she seems to have been a woman who bestowed her sexual favours much more widely than McLain suggests. There is a kind of noble sanitising going on. And in a strange way, this kind of dishonours the reality of who someone was, as if their reality is not acceptable.. Of course, it’s made more difficult by the fact that by all accounts neither Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) or Markham herself, in their own writings about Africa and their lives, are showers and tellers of the stuff we are always so fascinated by – what goes on beneath the sheets.

A biography of Markham was written, by Mary S. Lovell, who interviewed Markham in her 80s, and the biography was authorised by Markham. It also suggests that ‘the love of her life’ was not the one which is the central one in this book. So, again, I was left very uneasy that this woman’s ‘truth’ had been manipulated because it made a better story. I suspect this was because the Out of Africa film familiarised us with Blixen and Finch-Hatton, whereas some other real people are less well known, and have not been the subject of posthumous interest and speculation

By then we’d climbed above the coffee plants and thorn thickets and a narrow, twisting riverbed winking with quartz. The hill flattened out into a kind of plateau, and from there we could see straight down into the Rift Valley, its crags and ridges like pieces of a broken bowl. The rain had finally cleared, but a billowy ring of clouds rested over Kilimanjaro to the south, its flat top painted with snow and shadows.

As stated earlier, this fiction is a beautifully written, captivating one, but it is probably more of a fiction than a biography, and it is a shame that that is not made clear in the afterword

One of the real strengths of McLain’s writing is the evocation of place, the longing for, and meaning of place. I underlined many passages which rather stopped the breath, painting a vision of landscape which was both intensely itself and ‘more than’, both real and metaphor. She is excellent at describing that yearning for ‘more’ – not more goods, but more meaning. And a life as large, wayward and brave (not to mention, wilful) as Markham’s undoubtedly was, rather suggest a person whose drive was to be unconfined.

There are things we find only at our lowest depths. The idea of wings and then wings themselves. An ocean worth crossing one dark mile at a time. The whole of the sky. And whatever suffering has come is the necessary cost of such wonders….the beautiful thrashing we do when we live

I certainly recommend this as a piece of fiction, but not as a truthful biographical fiction.

I’m really pleased to have been offered this as an ARC, for review purposes, by the publishers, and am now hot on the trail to read Lovell’s biography, Straight on Till Morning: The Life of Beryl Markham , Markham’s own autobiographical book West With The Night, and Karen Blixen’s (Isak Dinesen’s) far better known account of the time and the place, Out of Africa. Not to mention finding and dusting off my CD of Sidney Pollacks’ 1985 film of this last book, starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. Complete with John Barry’s marvellous soundtrack

I do love it when a book sends me so clearly off in a direction to various others!Paula McLain

The book is released in the States, but according to Amazon, will not be published in the UK as a hardback until the end of August, though it is available now on Kindle

Circling The Sun Amazon UK
Circling The Sun Amazon USA