When you think “female aviator”—or “aviatrix,” as they are sometimes called, a delicious descriptor if ever one existed—chances are Amelia Earhart comes to mind. The dearth of well-known women pilots charging through gender barriers and stultifying period restrictions doesn’t mean they didn’t exist, but simply that so few of them were well-known.
Aviatrix Beryl Markham, the subject of Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun, is no household name, despite becoming the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean solo in 1936. She flew east to west in a journey that began in England and ended in Nova Scotia. This accomplishment alone warrants attention, but Markham had many more to her name.
Though she was born in England, her family resettled in East Africa when she was very young. Life there proved overwhelming for her mother, who returned to England and largely disappeared from her daughter’s life during her formative years. This meant young Beryl had to go one of two ways: allow her spirit to be forged by the molten landscape of her new country, or wither beneath the challenge.
Had she been raised in England in the early 1900s, her life and spirit may have been very different. As it was, she became the first professional, licensed female horse trainer in Kenya, and eventually a passionate pilot. At a time when women were confined to the domestic sphere, she burst through barriers from early childhood. At a young age she befriended a Kenyan boy named Kibii, whose family took Beryl under their wing, teaching her everything they would their own sons—up to and including hunting in the bush.
It has been said that “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” and it may, in part, have been Beryl’s fierce independent streak that kept her from history’s pages for so long. If word had gotten around about her back then, it might have given women ideas. For her part, McLain doesn’t whitewash her subject’s less pleasing moments. Markham’s three marriages, several affairs (one purportedly royal), and professional ambitions—all of which make her a fantastic subject for fiction—made her fodder for society gossip in her own time. In McLain’s hands, her voice is simultaneously introspective and unapologetic. Throughout her story, she refuses to give into the standard order: She refuses to stay in a bad marriage, she refuses to stay faithful, and she refuses to allow society to constrict her. She defied what men, and the world at large, thought a woman should be at the time: daughter, wife, mother.
McLain’s earlier historical novel The Paris Wife won fans with its depiction of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley. Her clear, sure presence animated every page—but because we only really know about Hadley what can be gleaned from correspondence and other people’s writing, the woman herself must remain something of a mystery. Beryl is less hidden because she actually wrote a memoir, titled West with the Night. The work so astounded readers, Hemingway included, that many believed, incorrectly, that she had help writing it. For all her rough edges and wildness, Beryl’s writing has a lyrical quality, a kind of poetic rhythm. With that kind of material at her disposal, McLain was able to create a rich, beautifully observed picture of the real Beryl Markham, and climb into her head to tell a fuller story than the memoir chose to. Historical fiction treads a tricky line, because characters are both fictional depictions and real people. But, as she did in The Paris Wife, McLain finds the balance in Circling the Sun. Consider this moment, when Beryl attends a party and is introduced to her host’s new horse. She immediately wants to ride him. McLain writes:
It didn’t take me five minutes to borrow trousers and change. When I came out of the house, a number of people had gathered on the lawn, and though Berkley laughed to see me in his clothes, I knew they fit me just fine and that I didn’t have to feel embarrassed about riding in front of this well-born crowd. Being on horseback was as natural as walking for me. More so, even.
The love triangle at the heart of Circling the Sun, involving Beryl, Out of Africa author Karen Blixen, and Denys Finch Hatton, a big-game hunter (and subject of Blixen’s book), informs much of the action, though the book spans a quarter century. But while Beryl’s colorful love life and the heartbreak involved are fascinating subjects, the most interesting part of the novel is Beryl herself. She wasn’t great because she was perfect, but because her imperfections forged her iron will—and that will defied the times.