One of the best things about being in a book club, aside from the wine and good conversation, is reading books you may not have picked up yourself, or books you didn’t even known about. I am fortunate enough to be in a book club with some of the brightest women I know who are all very well read and have brought some outstanding reads to share. The last book we read was Circling the Sun, by Paula McLain, about Beryl Markham. I was a bit surprised that I hadn’t yet heard of the book, or of Beryl Markham, because she is exactly the type of empowered woman I like to read (and write) about.
Circling the Sun is historical fiction based on the life of Beryl Markham, a British woman who grew up in Africa in the early 1900’s, became the first woman race-horse trainer in Kenya, and also the first woman pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west. She also wrote a memoir about her aviation adventures called West with the Night. Pretty amazing, right? Surprisingly, this fascinating woman’s history lived in obscurity until her rediscovery in the early 1980’s.
In 1905, Beryl’s father Charles Clutterbuck, a prominent race horse trainer in England, moved four-year-old Beryl, her older brother Dickie, and her mother Agnes to colonial British East Africa. There he purchased a farm in Njoro, near Kenya, to breed and train race horses. Beryl’s mother had difficulty adjusting to their new life and shortly after arriving in Africa, took the couple’s son and returned to England, leaving Beryl with her father. As an adult, Beryl often made it clear that she’d never really forgiven her mother for the abandonment, but also spoke of taking immense pleasure in growing up in the freedom of the wild African landscape, with the children of the village of Njoro as playmates.
Following in her father’s footsteps, Beryl had a knack for working with horses, and became the first licensed female racehorse trainer in Kenya at the age of 19. Her success at the track, as well as her determination, grit, and beauty led to Beryl’s renown among Africa’s bohemian and eccentric European social circle, known as the Happy Valley Set. Beryl married three times and had a son named Gervase with her second husband, Mansfield Markham, who moved Beryl to London before their son was born. When the couple’s marriage began to deteriorate, Beryl longed to return to Africa, but Markham would not let her take the young Gervase because of serious health issues.
In addition to two other marriages, Beryl had numerous affairs, including an openly public affair in 1929 with Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, son of George V. She also became enmeshed in a love triangle between her friend, the Danish writer Karen Blixen, and famous big game hunter and pilot Denys Finch Hatton. Blixen, who lived in Kenya to manage her family’s coffee farm outside of Nairobi, would later become famous for her novel Out of Africa, which she wrote under the penname Isak Dinesen.
During her affair with Hatton, Beryl became infatuated with flying and began taking flying lessons with British pilot Tom Campbell Black. After Denys was killed piloting his own plane, Beryl sought solace in her flying lessons and also in her flight instructor, starting a long term affair with Campbell Black which ultimately led to her divorce from Mansfield Markham.
For a short period of time, Beryl worked as a bush pilot for safari companies, spotting game animals from the air and signaling their locations to the parties on the ground. Never satisfied with mediocrity, Beryl decided to set a flying record of traveling solo non-stop from Europe to New York. No one had ever succeeded the westward flight, and many died trying. She set off from Abingdon, England in September of 1936. Twenty hours into her flight, her plane’s fuel tanks froze causing her to make a crash landing in Nova Scotia, Canada. She had fallen short of her goal, but she became the first woman and first person to make it from England to North America non-stop from east to west.
In 1942 Beryl publisher her memoir, West of the Night, an autobiographical account of her many adventures on the ground and in the air. The book did not sell well and quickly went out of print. In 1982, George Gutekunst, a restauranteur, stumbled upon a collection of Ernest Hemingway’s letters, one of which mentioned Beryl Markham’s memoir, and Beryl herself, in interesting terms. “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.” This backhanded compliment so struck Gutekunst that he read the book. Enamored with it, he championed it to a California publishing house, North Point Press, and the book was re-issued in 1983. Beryl, at age 83, still resided in Africa, and quite impressively, still worked training race horses. The re-issue of West with the Night became an instant best-seller and allowed for Beryl, who lived in near-poverty conditions, to retire and enjoy a little fame. She died three years later.
If you haven’t yet picked up Circling the Sun, or West with the Night, I highly recommend them. Better yet, if you aren’t in a book club, these two books are a great way to start. Get some friends together, have some good wine, good food, and good conversation about a woman who lived life just as she wanted.