Circling the Sun
by Paula McClain (Ballantine)
A beryl is a precious stone. It is rough until cut and polished when its beauty turns it into an aquamarine, or an emerald or the flawless golden heliodor. A beryl is rare and coveted. Beryl Markham was a wild thing created by Africa. She walked like a leopard and lived life with no boundaries. She was a maverick. A pioneer. Which during the early part of the twentieth century was a rare and golden thing. The wikipedia entry on her is dry and lifeless but the historical fiction, Circling the Sun, paints a portrait of her, like her home in Kenya, in strong strokes of fierce colors.
The book includes details her love triangle with Denys Finch Hatton and Baroness Karen Blixen. Blixen’s pen name is Isak Denisen and her book, Out of Africa, is known worldwide. Conspicuously missing from that book is any mention of Beryl Markham, with whom she was both a friend and a rival. Circling the Sun includes a focus on the triangle, which places Denys Finch Hatton squarely in the center between these two powerhouse women.
“I’ve sometimes thought that being loved a little less than others can actually make a person, rather than ruin them.”
It begins with the Clutterbuck family—Beryl’s father, mother, and brothers—moving to Colonial East Africa, later to become Kenya, to their farm in Njoro. Within four years, Beryl’s mother took her brothers and returned to England, leaving her behind with her father. Thus begins the theme of abandonment which winds its way through this book and Beryl’s life. There is no explanation as to why her mother did not take her. But this event sets up Beryl for a very unconventional life. Not only was it unusual to be raised by a single father, let alone in the Colonial African bush of the early part of the 20th century, but also to learn horse training at the hands of her father, a well known and successful trainer.
This lack of European society standards in her early life allows her to be adopted by the local tribe which lives on the land and are somewhat employed in her father’s stables. It shapes her in ways that echo through the book. She is given a tribal name and treated by the tribeswoman as one of their own. I found that to be a fascinating part of the story. Neither she nor the tribe had any bigotry towards one another. She was obviously too young to have adopted any preconceived notions about race. The women, it was said, felt that she needed a mother. But Beryl’s unique position, both as daughter of the landowner and a motherless child, allowed her to move between the two worlds easily. Her main playmates were the young males of the tribe. Arap Rutra was her childhood best friend and we see in this book their relationship of trust forged in youth taken to adulthood. It wasn’t until puberty that she began to be treated like a young woman of the tribe would be, which was confusing for the strongly independent bush-loving woman-child.
Early puberty turned out to be, as it is for most people, a confusing time. Her father tried to get her a governess so she could learn to read and write and do sums. Beryl put snakes in her bed. Her father’s “housekeeper” tried to teach her some of the standard European civilities such as using utensils at the table. These were met with fierce opposition by Beryl who was extremely contrary to any notion of being “proper” and “correct”. This theme is repeated over and over. Her father and his mistress tried to send her to school in town, she was eventually tossed out. I’m still amazed that she ended up with any education at all. It was obvious that she was afraid to read aloud as in one passage she was asked to and she begged off, saying she would make a muck of it. Education not being standard, she still managed to learn the things that were important to her, such as keeping proper records for her stables. In modern times, we now all this “unlearning” and she is an excellent example of how this type of learner succeeds.
We ate our meal in strained silence, all of the furniture seeming to lean heavily in from the walls. The servants were very quiet as they came and went, and it was awful to sit there, wanting to scream but saying nothing. Jock was terrified I was going to embarrass him – or embarrass him further. That was all he seemed to think of now as he flexed and cautioned me, running thick strands of wire around the charade of our life together. He’d always been good at fences. I had known that from the beginning, but I hadn’t guessed how desperate I could feel bound up inside one.
From this point forward, the book describes in detail her forced marriage to an alcoholic, her second marriage to a controlling aristocrat and in between, how she managed to keep sane, free, and alive by throwing herself at her work. Her “coming out” party is when she meets Denys Finch Hatton and her first husband. Sadly, she never marries her Denys. The book manages to convey to us that Kenya is her one true love and that this woman, against all odds, managed stay true to herself. She became the first woman horse trainer in Africa, at the tender age of 19, and then later triumphed as the first woman aviator to cross the Atlantic from Europe to North America.
On safari, I saw Denys in sharper relief than I ever had. He had an infallible compass, and a way of seeing everything as if he knew it would never be there exactly the same again. More than anyone I’d known, Denys understood how nothing ever holds still for us, or should. The trick is learning to take things as they come and fully, too, with no resistance or fear, not trying to grip them too tightly or make them bend.
I thought the book would be more about her aviation exploits. It was not. It barely touched on this but it does lead nicely into it. I think that is just as well that it does not focus on aviation as Beryl herself wrote a brilliant book about that, West with the Night.
What this book is about is a pioneer. A pilgrim. A woman in the field of horse racing and aviation at a time when this was completely unheard of. A woman who gained and lost more in one lifetime than could be shoehorned into ten. I considered her to be lucky to have lived in a place that rejected societal norms of the early twentieth century—especially in relation to women—and expectations of women at that time. She reportedly had an affair with Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester (Queen Elizabeth’s uncle and the former Governor General of Australia) along with a few other adventuresome men. Society could not accept her ways which were often male-centric. Because she worked with men, in her profession of horse racing, it caused “nice women” to be suspicious of her being around their men. As for Beryl’s reputation, it was insinuated by society as loose. The frustration of being a strong woman in a male dominated society is pivotal to this book.
“Oh.” It seemed I’d surprised him. “There isn’t a lot of that kind of thinking around here.”
“Of course there is,” I told him, trying to draw a smile. “It’s just usually a man who’s doing it.”
This book clearly shows, however, that because she had been sheltered in a tribe, she had more provincial sexual morals. One scene in particular details her absolute horror at the Happy Valley set’s “party” where partners were swapped. It marked the end of a very lucrative relationship with a man who was ready to set her up in her own stables. She packed up and walked out…leaving thousands and thousands of pounds behind. Cash.
The book ends after Denys Finch Hatton dies in a flying accident and Beryl makes her way West across the Atlantic Ocean. She didn’t make it to New York by plane but came up short. and landed in Nova Scotia. I would have loved to know more about her but even her own biography doesn’t go further. What we do know of her later life can be found in microfiche and archives. But there is nothing about her that could ever be buried in dust. Women like Beryl Markham are timeless and strongly cut… Rare and beautiful.
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I listened to this book rather than read it and I thoroughly enjoyed the narration. It was beautiful and transportive which matched the book’s voice completely.
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