Published in 2015 by Virago Press, Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun, was her much awaited novel, following on from her previous very successful achievement, The Paris Wife.
A work of historical fiction, it portrays the true story of Beryl Markham, a woman way ahead of her time.
Please read on for my thoughts on this truly wonderful book…
‘I learned to watch, to put my trust in other hands than mine. And I learned what every dreaming child needs to know – that no horizon is so far that you cannot get above it or beyond it. These I learned at once. But most things came harder’ – Beryl Markham from her own novel West with the Night (Pub 1942)
These words were written by Beryl Markham, following a life that was at times exhilarating, frightening, challenging & exciting. A life in the African continent where no two days were the same.
Beryl Markham was an aviatrix, a horse trainer, an adventurer & an author. Beryl (Clutterbuck) was born in 1902 in the county of Rutland in the UK. In 1904, her father, Charles Clutterbuck, moved the family to Kenya, when the colonizing & development of the country was in a very early stage.
‘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-fuelled Happy Valley set to the loneliness of life as a scandalous divorcee.
We encounter unforgettable characters: Karen Blixen, the writer-farmer-baroness; Denys Finch Hatton, irresistible big-game hunter; Kibii, the friend of her childhood; and Lord Delamare, the man who gives her a chance to prove herself. And at the heart of this story is Beryl: dazzling,contradictory, brave, passionate and reckless, whose great loss in love finally frees her to pursue her dreams of flight – and freedom.’
Paula McLain portrays Beryl Markham from a very early age as a girl who always had to fight for her dreams. Her mother, unable to cope with the toughness of the life of the early colonizer, left Beryl and her Dad when she was very young and returned to the UK with Beryl’s only brother Dickie. Beryl’s Dad was a respected horse trainer who set out to establish a reputation for himself in Kenya at their beloved farm Greenhills. While it’s clear her Dad loved her dearly, he was so caught up in the development of his business, that Beryl spent her youth running wild in the bush and developing very close & lifetime friendships with the natives of the area. At a very young age, she is attacked by a lion, but surprisingly survives relatively unscathed.
“What is a whip to a lion? He must have been ready to let you go. Or perhaps you weren’t ever meant for him.
What am I meant for then?
How wonderful that question is, Beryl……And as you did not die on this day, you have more time in which to answer it”
And answer it she did. By the age of eighteen, her first marriage already in tatters, she went on to become the first female ever to be granted a trainer’s license in Kenya.
Her acceptance as a trainer into the Kenyan equestrian society was a struggle from the very beginning. Life in the colony, for many, was based around Nairobi’s Muthaiga Club, where gossip was rife and one’s reputation could be finished if one didn’t ‘play the game’. Beryl, most certainly, did not ‘play the game’. She did keep company with an array of historical figures, one being Karen Blixen (from Out Of Africa fame). Her relationship with Karen and the other women of the time was never that of very close friendship but still one that did last a number of years. They were both in love with Denys Finch-Hatton, the renowned great hunter of the time. He led hunting parties into the bush, including the British royalty of the time, Edward & his brother Henry. Finch-Hatton could not be tamed & the love triangle that developed is portrayed in the book as a very tough relationship for Beryl. She didn’t fear scandal but unfortunately certain standards were considered acceptable at the time and Beryl constantly flaunted them, making her life very difficult. She was unable to accept the role of fun-loving, cocktail-drinking glamorous female of the 1920s, as was the life chosen of many of the women who crossed her path.
Beryl was different.
Beryl was a pioneer.
Throughout the book, her various relationships with the men in her life prove disastrous. After finally receiving a divorce from Jock Purves, she marries the wealthy Mansfield Markham. This marriage gets her back on her feet but she continues to upset the establishment, apparently having an affair with Prince Henry at one point.
‘You look marvellous on a horse, particularly in slacks, I think all women should wear slacks’ – He was a great admirer of Beryl & was very supportive after the birth of her son with Mansfield, Gervase, who was born with birth defects. By all accounts, their ‘friendship’ was stopped by the Windsors.
Unsurprisingly her marriage to Mansfield struggled and eventually failed but she did keep his name.
At the time aviation was the undiscovered territory of the adventurer and this was to be Beryl’s next triumph. She achieved her aviation licence and, in 1936, still in her early thirties, she took on her next challenge. She became the first female pilot to complete a solo flight across the Atlantic east-to-west. A remarkable achievement, an historical achievement.
Circling the Sun recounts Beryl Markham’s life, all that was good & bad, up to this point. It is a wonderful story of the courage of one woman to take on the society of the time, of her complete determination to prove she could be anything she wanted to be.
I think it speaks for itself that I really loved this book. I came away from it with a sense of determination and admiration. I hope you get an opportunity to read it & enjoy it as much.
Purchase Link : Circling The Sun
I have this on my TBR pile and must get round to reading it, especially after your thoughtful review!!
Thank you Tina. It’s an era I love to read about. I had never heard of Beryl Markham. An amazing read. As ever thank you for your kind words.