Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2015.
“Everywhere I looked, complex pairings came together and slid apart again, like characters in a melodrama. Lives tumbled. They changed in an instant…that’s how quickly something could be newly begun, or finished forever. Every now and then, those things didn’t look so very different, on the surface. They both cost a great deal, too.”
Before she became the pioneering aviator holding the record for being the first woman to make the east to west solo crossing of the Atlantic in 1936, Beryl Markham (nee Clutterbuck) had already led a unique and varied life. Abandoned by her mother at the age of four, she was raised by a single father in the British colony of Kenya, where she became the first woman to hold an English horse trainer’s license. Though she enjoyed some remarkable professional success, her turbulent personal life, and the stifling social atmosphere of the colony would lead her to reinvent herself again and again in pursuit of the seemingly exclusive dreams of freedom and love. In Circling the Sun, Paula McLain—who previously fictionalized the life of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley in The Paris Wife—turns her attention to Markham, a complicated figure whose legacy remains plagued with scandal.
Markham sought independence, and focused on her career at a time when both she and the men she loved struggled to reconcile her ambition and insistence on freedom with her need for love. McLain depicts Markham’s string of marriages and entanglements that bogged down her career, including a long and complicated attachment to the famous big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton, who was also the long-time paramour of Baroness Blixen (better known by her pen name Isak Dinesen). McLain’s work cover’s Markham’s early life, and first two marriages, all of which is framed by her famous trans-Atlantic flight. Given the period that it covers, the book is much more about horses than planes, and more about the complicated social relationships that characterized the colony than anything else. Circling the Sun might be considered the prequel to Markham’s better-known accomplishments.
McLain’s fictional version of Markham demonstrates a deep love for Africa as a place, lavishly painting the landscape that repeatedly draws Markham back home. However, Circling the Sun has very little to say about the African people, or the problems and complications of colonialism. This is in spite of the prominence of Markham’s employer and surrogate father-figure, Baron Delamere, a significant political figure who strongly opposed the Devonshire White Paper, which declared the primacy of African interests over those of the colony’s white settlers. McLain provides a few political passages, but these are references which the fictional Markham brushes off as “some recent political nonsense.” It is difficult to say whether this reflects Markham’s own lack of interest in colonial politics, or a narrative choice on McLain’s part. Certainly it would have been more than enough for Markham to try to make her way in a man’s career, without also trying to interfere with politics. Black Africans feature very little in the story, with the exception of Markham’s childhood friend Kibii Ruta, who comes back to work for her as an adult. This intriguing relationship is portrayed as a grounding force in Markham’s life, and left me powerfully curious about Ruta.
McLain has definitely painted a sympathetic portrait of Markham, trying to inhabit her complicated times and questionable personal choices with understanding rather than judgement. In her author’s note, she quotes some effusive praise by Ernest Hemingway—no saint himself and something of misogynist—of Markham’s memoir West with the Night, but chooses to elide the fact that Hemingway goes on to call her a “high-grade bitch.” After her famous trans-Atlantic flight, Markham is perhaps best known for an affair with Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, which McLain chooses to write out as entirely baseless. It’s hard to say how much of the scandal was tittle-tattle of the sort that made the small colonial community so stifling, but Markham doesn’t need to be likeable in order to be fascinating or noteworthy. McLain’s Markham isn’t uncomplicated, but she isn’t fully rounded, either. However, McLain has certainly succeeded in sparking empathy and curiosity, and perhaps that is enough for a fictional biography.
You might also like The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert.