I’ve read two books over the last few weeks, one I’ve had for many years, the second was bought in the last couple of years. As they are on the same subject, a biography and an autobiography, I thought it would be good to read them one after the other.
Beryl Markham was a fascinating woman, she was born in 1902 in England but when she was four her parents moved to British East Africa (Kenya) to farm and breed racehorses. Her mother and brother returned after only 2 years. Beryl spent her days playing with the local tribe, the Nandi Murani, learning to track and hunt with their chief. In 1919 a disastrous drought lead to the loss of the farm and the family fortune, her father left for Peru but Beryl stayed and became the first woman in Africa to be granted a race horse trainers license at the age of eighteen. In her late twenties Beryl learnt to fly and again became the first woman in Africa to hold a pilot’s license, she piloted mail across Africa and scouted for game for safaris. In 1936 she hit the headlines by becoming the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west, taking off in England and crash landing in Nova Scotia 21 hours later.
West with the Night is Beryl’s autobiography. Her descriptions of Africa are beautiful, she clearly loved the country and had a huge respect for the indigenous population, she spoke Swahilli, Nandi and Masai. Her friendship with Kibii, a boy from the Nandi Murani, lasted a lifetime. In her book she writes about her childhood escapades, her time as a racehorse trainer and then learning to fly, concluding with the record breaking flight across the Atlantic. She rarely mentions her social life at all which is where the next book comes in…
Circling the Sun is by Paula McLain, she says;
” …Neglected daughter, scourge of governesses, serial absconder from boarding school, by the age of 16 Beryl had been catapulted into a disastrous marriage, emerging from the wreckage vowing to take charge of her own destiny. Circling the Sun takes the reader from the spectacular beauty of the Rift Valley to the immaculate lawns of Nairobi’s Muthaiga Club, from the brittle glamour of the gin fueled Happy Valley set to the loneliness of life as a scandalous divorcee. “
You have to remember when reading these books that they are set in a very different time, when big game hunting in particular was acceptable. I loved both these books, West with the Night is beautifully written. Beryl achieved so much before she was even 30, I found her descriptions of Africa in the 1920’s fascinating. The book concentrates on what she did, rather than including the social side of her life. Circling the Sun fills in all the gaps, it is written sympathetically not salaciously, describing her relationship with her ‘step-mother’, her circle of friends which included Karen Blixen (Out of Africa) and Blor Blixen. She was married three or four times and had a son in London. She was a feisty, brave woman who worked hard to achieve what she wanted, refusing to be beaten by the gossip and tittle tattle and the inequalities that thrived in white African society.
I’m tempted to read Karen Blixen’s book now, I never even saw the film Out of Africa, there’s also another book about Beryl called Straight on Til Morning which look interesting.