Saturday, August 22, 2015

My hero / Beryl Markham by Paula McLain

Beryl Markham

My hero: Beryl Markham by Paula McLain

An aviator, author and racehorse trainer, Markham was too bold, ambitious and unwilling to be curbed by the constraints of her class or gender

Saturday 22 August 2015

ith enough courage,” Margaret Mitchell famously wrote, “you can do without a reputation.” Would it were so for record-breaking British aviator and author Beryl Markham. Brought up in colonial Kenya, Markham was the first woman to fly the Atlantic non-stop and solo, east to west, “the hard way”, in 1936. When she was just 18, she became the first licensed female racehorse trainer in Africa and quite probably the world. As a bush pilot, she pioneered the practice of spotting big game from the air for safari hunters – and wrote about all these adventures compellingly and with great style in the 1942 memoir West With the Night, a book Ernest Hemingway pronounced “bloody wonderful”. And yet if you read Markham’s Wikipedia page, her considerable achievements seem both footnote to and distraction from the cataloguing of famous men she was rumoured to have bedded.

Raised unconventionally, on a horse farm in the Rift Valley, 100 miles upcountry from Nairobi, Markham flung herself fearlessly into the forest and the bush, learned to hunt warthog with a spear, and to love the way physical challenge and risk made her feel more alive. She never quite fitted into her world. She was too bold, too ambitious and too unwilling to be curbed by the constraints of her class or gender. There is an oft-repeated speculation that West With the Night wasn’t written by Markham but by her third husband, Raoul Schumacher. In fact, she had already delivered the bulk of the manuscript before the two met. But a comment Schumacher made in anger to a friend when their relationship was on the skids, that Markham had written “not one damned word” of the book, has outlasted any refutations. West With the Night is a rare reading experience – a kind of magic carpet that bears you away to Africa. The prose is fresh and unrestricted, the adventures exciting, and the point of view original. That Markham would be stripped of authorship because the world didn’t quite know what to make of her seems unconscionable. She had more courage than reputation in the end, but the book deserves its place, and her life demands another look.
 Paula McLain’s novel Circling the Sun is published by Virago this month.





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