Circling the Sun, by Paula McLain, is an historical fictional memoir about the life of Beryl Markham, an extraordinary woman who attained fame by becoming the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic. Beryl spent much of her life in colonial Kenya where she scandalised high society with her refusal to bend to convention. She does not come across as a happy woman, but is certainly remarkable.
Beryl was born in Leicestershire, England, but moved to British East Africa with her parents and older brother when she was two years old. Her father had sold their home and invested the money in a farm where he planned to grow wheat and establish a stable of thoroughbred race horses. Two years after they had arrived Beryl’s mother returned to England with her son, leaving Beryl to be raised by her father. This abandonment haunted her for life.
With her father busy establishing his farm the young Beryl was left to run wild with the natives, a life she adored. The local village took pity on the motherless child and accepted her into their fold where she learned their language, their stories, and how to hunt alongside their boys. From her father she learned about horses.
Beryl and her father socialised little but the friends they had were other wealthy expatriates enjoying the colonial lifestyle. When Beryl was eleven years old one of these neighbours commented on Beryl’s wildness. Within a few months her father had brought a housekeeper to the farm to polish and educate his daughter. Beryl rebelled.
“All the way across the yard, I fumed. The world was pinching in on me, narrowing to the sudden fact of Mrs Orchardson, and what she might mean to do or be.”
From this moment on Beryl fought to keep her independence, a difficult state for a woman to achieve at the time. Although many in Kenya lived lives that would have been considered unacceptably scandalous in England, they did so from within the confines of convention. Beryl was not adept at hiding what she was doing, nor did she accept that this was how she should live.
Beryl’s life unfolded as a series of triumphs and disasters. She entered into marriages which failed, affairs which became public knowledge and caused difficulties for her friends, pregnancies which led to heartache. She also became the first woman ever to hold a professional racehorse trainer’s licence at only nineteen and went on to achieve success in this field.
Although Beryl and many of the other white colonists sometimes struggled financially, the lives they led were fuelled by excess: parties, affairs, champagne, fast living. The size of the country belied the closeness of the community where there was much intermingling and few secrets. Beryl befriended the writer Karen Blixen and big game hunter Denys Finch Hatton, famed by Blixen’s memoir, ‘Out of Africa’. Denys was one of Beryl’s lovers and it was he who inspired her to learn to fly.
This story is a vivid portrayal of a gilded lifestyle and of a woman who railed against the constraints imposed by being born a woman at that time. I did not warm to Beryl but was impressed by her strength of purpose. She was fortunate in having so many loyal friends.
The prose is fabulous evoking the power and splendour of Africa; the transience of the shallow lives lived by the colonists juxtaposing the beauty of the land.
“I think we sat that way for hours. Long enough for me to feel my own density settle more and more completely into the chalky dust. Aeons had made it, out of dissolving mountains, out of endlessly rocking metamorphosis. The things of the world knew so much more than we did and lived them more truly. The thorn trees had no grief or fear. The constellations didn’t fight or hold themselves back, nor did the translucent hook of the moon. Everything was momentary and endless. This time with Denys would fade, and it would last forever.”
Although Beryl lived into her eighties this story finishes with her first solo flight at the age of twenty-nine, a brief epilogue confirming her successful transatlantic flight. We are told in an author’s note that “Scandal and speculation followed Beryl for much of her life.” Given her apparent single mindedness, this does not surprise.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Virago Press.