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