Beryl Markham – Brave Heroine or Scandalous Woman or Both?

‘Circling the Sun’ by Paula McLain   (2015)  – 355 pages

 

beryl‘Circling the Sun’ is an historical fiction memoir of British-born Kenyan aviator, race horse trainer, and author Beryl Markham.  In the novel Beryl Markham tells her story herself from when she was a little girl.  When Beryl was four her father decided to move the family from England to a horse farm in Kenya, Africa.  However her mother couldn’t stand being isolated on the farm and soon returned to England.  Thus Beryl grew up independent and wild in Africa without her mother.

As a young woman she became the first female race horse trainer in Kenya and was successful and renowned among the racing community in Kenya. Later she took up flying and became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic from east to west in 1936 and also flew from Kenya to England.  She also became friends with the Danish writer Karen Blixen (pen name Isak Dinesen) who also spent years in Kenya.

Since ‘Circling the Sun’ is written as a memoir, Beryl Markham presents herself in a positive light as a spunky trailblazing young woman.  The website Scandalous Women has a quite different take on Beryl.  The life story is pretty much the same, but her romantic life is presented in a much different light.

‘Circling the Sun’ presents the first 28 years of Beryl’s life up to the year 1931 when her lover Denys Finch Hatton is killed in a plane crash.  Up to 1931 the novel depicts her as having two marriages, both of which end in divorce, and three other lovers.  According to Scandalous Women, her marriages “foundered under the weight of Beryl’s infidelities. Beryl didn’t know the first thing about the responsibilities of being a wife, nor did she grow up with many examples of a good marriage.”

b2Her first marriage at seventeen to a man twenty years older than her was a total disaster.  However she was definitely at fault in her second marriage as she had an indiscreet affair with Prince Harry, a previous Prince Harry, while married.  Her husband at the time, Mansfield Markham, found out and threatened to sue for divorce, and Prince Harry to avoid a scandal agreed to put 15,000 pounds in a trust for Beryl.  According to Scandalous Women,

“Beryl treated sex more like a man, as a necessary function like brushing one’s teeth, or eating. Very few of her lovers touched her heart.” 

‘Circling the Sun’ has Denys Finch Hatton as the love of Beryl’s life, the only problem here being that he was Karen Blixen’s lover at the time that Beryl moved in on him.

Scandalous Women places Beryl Markham as one of the notoriously decadent Happy Valley set in Kenya.  According to Scandalous Women,

“She could be ruthless and amoral, using people and then discarding them. She often took advantage of friends, running up huge bills on their accounts, without guilt.” 

‘Circling the Sun’ is fairly accurate in relating the significant events of Beryl Markham’s life, but it is a prettified high school girl’s version of her life.  This often happens when one is allowed to tell one’s own story.  To get a more realistic, objective view of Beryl Markham’s life, you need to dig deeper.

 

Grade: B+ 

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16 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by kaggsysbookishramblings on August 23, 2015 at 3:11 PM

    I think you’ve pinned down one of the reasons I’m uncomfortable with all these fictionalised biography books that are appearing at the moment – the truth is getting smoothed over for a fictional slant and it’s distorting our view of the subject as the risk is that we accept the fiction as reality. I think I’ll definitely be avoiding this one!

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    • Hi Kaggsy,
      Your words give me an idea for a novel I’d like to read. Alternating chapters with one voice a straightforward memoir and a second voice of his or her worst enemy. i’ve seen it before especially in comic novels. Of course if the method became common, there might be few real heroes left.

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  2. This novel is definitely a cleaned up version of her life. One thing that bothered me in particular was the glossing over of her affair with Prince Harry. In the book she just flirts with him and the whole thing is a terrible misunderstanding.

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    • Hi Melissa,
      Yes, the Prince Harry affair is definitely glossed over. But as with so many famous people, the successes of Beryl Markham are still worthy of note. She was a true independent woman.

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  3. Have you read her own memoir, West with the night? I have had it on my TBR for a couple of decades (Isn’t that embarrassing? I’ve always wanted to read it, but sometimes always wants to be read just that little bit more.). From your review of this, I’m intrigued. I suspect she cleans up her life a little in her memoir too? Whatever, I think I’d read it before I read this because I’d like to hear her voice.

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    • Hi Whispering Sue,
      I have NOT read ‘West With the Night’ although I did read it is quite good. I suspect that McLain probably used that memoir as her model. Not too many people are brutally honest with themselves in their memoirs, and that’s probably a good thing. ‘Circling the Sun’ did hold my interest throughout. I wanted to read McLain after all the stir regarding ‘The Paris Wife’.

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  4. Posted by Mij Woodward on August 24, 2015 at 6:19 PM

    So glad for your reference to Scandalous Women. Great site! Circling the Sun is next on my “to read” list, so I will read the blurp about Beryl Markham after reading the book. I like your review.

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    • Hi Mij,
      I discovered the site ‘Scandalous Women’ several years ago and bookmarked it then. I forgot about it, but it came up when I googled ‘Beryl Markham’, and the material there seemed to fit for my review. It is a most interesting site.

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  5. This has gotten superb reviews, but I’m not big on historical novels. I do have Markham’s actual memoir, and will have to read that. Am glad to see this only gets a B+, a good grade, but it doesn’t mean I actually have to read it. 🙂

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    • Hi Kat,
      Beryl Markham was a free spirit in more ways than one. I picture her as sort of like Princess Diana who got in to all kinds of trouble, but still was well-loved. Just like there are many write-ups of Princess Diana that show only her good side, ‘Circling the Sun’ portrays the good side of Beryl Markham while kind of glossing over the rest.

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  6. Hi, I’ve not read this but this kind of fictionalised version of a real life is not my favourite genre. Not keen on the cliché book cover either. Beryl Markham’s own biography is pretty good, despite its rather lofty tone.

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    • Hi Nicola,
      One might question the need for ‘Circling the Sun’ when her own autobiography ‘West of the Night’ is so well done. There are probably a lot of other women whose exploits are deserving of a real account, but it might be more fun to make up a life in a novel. 🙂

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