Circling the Sun – Will the Real Beryl Markham Please Stand Up

9780345534187_p0_v2_s192x300When I started reading Paula McClain’s Circling the Sun, the story got lost in the characters and my dim memory of the movie “Out of Africa.”  Before continuing, I sought more information on the famous aviatrix Beryl Markham in the biography Straight on Till Morning by Mary S. Lovell and in Markham’s memoir West With The Night.  The information did not always match, confirming my long held suspicion of memoirs. Biographers with their long list of references can usually be trusted to be more objective than doctored memories and withheld secrets in memoirs, and novelists with poetic license can create a mythical heroine who may not have actually existed.

In an article for Town and Country – An Insanely Glamorous Love Triangle  – Paula Mc Clain confirmed Lovell’s biographical facts and provided a succinct summary of Beryl Markham’s early life and background – a good grounding for reading the fictionalized version she created in Circling the Sun.  In her biography of Markham, Lovell’s accounting of the facts has the flavor of documentation, as she peppers her text with quotes from her well-researched resources. She includes excerpts from letters and her impressions from interviewing the elderly Markham – perhaps not the most reliable source.  Together, the biography and the article gave me what I needed.  Understanding Beryl Markham’s real life made the fiction more enjoyable and understandable.

Although Lovell’s biography clearly outlined the key dramatic events shaping the life of Beryl Markham, McClain offers a sympathetic and sometimes softened view, suggesting motivations and conflicts inside the minds of the characters.  When I read McClain’s narrative describing Beryl’s first marriage at the age of sixteen to a rich thirty year old landowner in Africa, I remembered Lovell’s clear references to the trade her father had made in bartering her for money needed for his farm.  When Beryl proclaims she is still a virgin into the third week of her marriage in Circling the Sun, I remembered Lovell’s references to Beryl’s desire for sex in and out of her marriages – a fact McClain capitalizes on later in the novel when she imagines Beryl’s sexual awakening.

Like no other life event, four year old Beryl being abandoned by her mother shaped her outlook on life, molding her interaction with others – especially her father – and ultimately forming her fierce spirit.  McClain projects how this trauma continued to haunt Beryl and influence her decisions. Throughout the novel McClain expanded on life events with imaginative and sometimes scintillating details – Beryl’s relationship with the brother of the Prince of Wales (whose baby was it really?), the commonplace extramarital affairs (Are you married or do you live in Kenya?), and, of course, the steamy story behind the beautiful Danish baroness – Karen Blixen – and her sexy womanizing husband Denys Finch Hatton (played by Robert Redford in the movie). Although McClain has Beryl Markham narrating her tale from the cockpit of her Vega Gull airplane, the record-breaking 1936 trip across the ocean is only a blip in her story.

Hemingway, whose appraisal of Markham’s writing skills inadvertently triggered  the success of Beryl Markham’s memoir in its second edition, had met her in Africa and commented in a letter to his publisher: “…this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch…” McClain’s fictionalized Beryl Markham is not as unpleasant as she may have been in life, but wouldn’t we all prefer to be immortalized as a sexy adventurer and a feminine icon?  The facts of her life as noted by Lovell are amazing in themselves: Beryl Markham was “a famous aviatrix who was brought up on an African ranch, {became} a professional horse trainer, learned to fly, and for years operated a sort of air taxi service for African hunters…” And she probably didn’t care if people liked her or not.

 

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