Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Victim or Opportunist? Beryl Markham's Remarkable Life

Biographical fiction is an interesting genre consisting of one person's imagined probing into the lives of real people. The incidents and dialogue, the reflections of the characters, their emotional life revealed in the work, are not to be considered "truth" but interpretation.

I have been reading many of the NetGalley biographical fiction books about writers and historical figures. There have been so many of them available! The genre has grown wildly over the last decade.

Circling the Sun by Paula McClain will be a best seller. Her previous novel The Paris Wife was well received. The novel is written in the first person voice of Beryl Markham, who was raised in Africa and was the first female horse trainer and the first aviatrix to cross the Atlantic. She was friends with Karen Blixen (Isak Dineson) and her lover Denys Hatten Finch--who was also involved with Beryl.

I enjoyed reading about Beryl's childhood in Africa. Her family left Britain for Kenya where her father farmed and trained horses. The family split when Beryl was four years old. Her mother and brother returning to England, leaving Beryl with her father. She grew up in exquisite freedom, hanging with the natives, unschooled, unkempt. Beryl's first language was Swahili. She learned to hunt with the local native boys. She dealt with a lion attack.

As Beryl came into her middle teens British expat social pressure prevailed; she "came out" and met their neighbor, an alcoholic war veteran who decided to marry her. And at age 17 she married Jock Purvis. It didn't work out. McClain's Purvis is overly sensitive and has little patience to teach Beryl how to be a wife.

She is 18 when she leaves Purvis. Determined to be self supporting she trains to become the first women horse trainer. She becomes involved in a 'friends with benefits relationship', and then falls in love with Denys who is with the married Blixen. She and Denys snatch moments together.

Beryl finds herself pregnant and goes to England to seek help. A friend finds her a "protector" who will pay for an abortion with the expectation that Beryl will be his mistress. Still married to Purvis and in love with Denys, totally without means of self support, she acquiesces. Sadly her new duties include wife swapping.

Her later marriage to Mansfield Markham was also a failure. He kept their child and sent Beryl packing.

McClain's portrayal of Beryl as victim was interesting. Her inability to form lasting relationships could be interpreted as a natural outcome of her mother's abandonment and her father's willingness to marry her off ASAP.

Here we are half way through the story and you see where things are going. Beryl can't make a good decision, she has little power over her own life, and men rule the world. This is not the Beryl I expected to read about: The convention-defying, pioneering spirit with a masculine independence who didn't believe in boundaries. Reading about Beryl online she appears more self-determined. She is quoted as saying she had causal sex with numerous men because there was nothing much else to do out in the bush. And yet she is supposed to have rejected the advances of Ernest Hemingway when they were out in the bush!

I wanted to read Beryl's book instead of McClain's. Not that McClain's book is "bad", but because I wanted to know how Beryl saw herself.

McClain's book starts and ends with Beryl flying across the Atlantic. This 1936 event, the most important achievement of Beryl's life, frames the story which is really an extended flash back over her life. That is just too bad. I would have liked to read the flight story in its entirety: Beryl remaining awake for 21 hours in a time before auto-pilot; the long cold hours flying blind; the crash landing in Nova Scotia; painfully recalling Denys's death in a plane crash. What was Beryl imagining as she plunged earthwards? What was her joy and satisfaction of surviving and finding fame? Days after her success, her flight trainer Tom Campbell Black died in a plane crash. After that she lost interest in flying.

McClain shows Beryl liked to read, including poetry. Some biographers contend that Beryl did not like to read and had no patience to write, suggesting that her memoir was actually penned by journalist husband No. 3, Raoul Schumacher. In 1942 West with the Night was published  and sold well. Then it was forgotten. When it was reprinted in 1983 it brought recognition--and much needed income--to the aging and impoverished Beryl.

Circling the Sun is an enjoyable read. Today's women will like this softened version of Beryl.

To learn more about Beryl Markham:

I thank the publisher for a free ebook through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Circling the Sun
Paula McClain
Random House-Ballantine
$28 hard cover
Publication Date: July 28, 2015
ISBN: 9780345534187


An interesting article on the genre by Slate Magazine states,"...a flood of what amounts to biographical fan fiction has swept conventional literary biography out of the way." Talking about Vanessa and Her Sister, which I reviewed last year, the article suggests that the difference between biography and novels is that the novelist can "sift and sort through evidence to make a character out of the remains of a person. But only novelists get to throw out everything that doesn't fit."

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