From being down and out in to Elizabethan England with Christopher Marlowe, I travelled via my next book pick to experience the life of a wealthy white colonizer and a trailblazing woman in early 20th century Africa. Circling the Sun is the story of Beryl Markham, the first woman (and second person) to fly across the Atlantic from east to west. She was the daughter of a white farmer in Kenya, a highly skilled racehorse trainer at a time when that was largely a men-only career, and a society woman with several high-profile affairs as well as three marriages. And most of this was before she started to fly planes.
Beryl Markham certainly lived an interesting life — the book only covers her life up to her early thirties, and she lived into her eighties. And she inhabited an interesting world in interesting times. Also, Paula McLain is good at vividly recreating a woman’s life in times past and drawing the reader in, as she did in The Paris Wife. So this was an intriguing book that I read quite quickly. Beryl is not always a likable protagonist, but she was, to me, always engaging. I cared about what happened to her even when I didn’t like the choices she made. And, as is nearly always the case with well-written stories about women’s lives in decades or centuries past, I found myself struck by how limited her choices were, how difficult it was even for a relatively wealthy, privileged woman blessed with intelligence and a strong will, to carve out anything remotely like an independent life for herself.
What’s missing from Circling the Sun is both infuriating and also absolutely appropriate. The book vividly paints the world of expatriate English people living our their lives in the African colonies, amusing themselves with everything from jungle safaris to casual infidelity, but never investigates the strangeness of the fact that all their wealth and ease (and even their hardship, as when farmers like Beryl’s father fail to make their farms pay) is built on theft. The mere idea that you can move into a land where someone else is living, exploit that land’s resources for your own benefit, and make the native population serve you, is, on the face of it, preposterous. Hopefully it seems preposterous to most of us today. But for people living in Beryl Markham’s time, it was simply the way the world worked (albeit a world that was going to end far sooner than most of them realized). The politics and power struggles in the background of the book are about which group of white people are going to control which piece of Africa; the native population is never treated serious as owners and masters of the land, as they had been before European conquest and would be again within a couple of decades.
It’s jarring to a modern reader that nobody in the book ever reflects or comments upon this, but I also think it’s absolutely right, because the lives of people like Beryl Markham and the others she associated with (including Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton, probably better known to most reader than Beryl herself) were made possible by never thinking about the ridiculous immorality of the project they were all engaged in. As a child, she spent a lot of time in the nearby native village (I don’t know whether this is historically accurate or a detail invented by McLain, as I hadn’t read anything by or about Markham before), and it particularly close to one boy near her own age. When both Beryl and the African boy are adolescents, she makes a brief sexual advance towards him, to which he succinctly responds, “Do you want to get me killed?”
Later, that same African friend, Ruta — now grown, married and with a family — becomes Beryl’s most trusted retainer, but there’s never any question that he is a servant, not an equal. That disparity between black and white underpins the entire world that makes Beryl’s story possible, and it’s entirely believable that a woman like Markham, iconoclastic as she was in so many areas, would be entirely conventional and accepting of that system that benefitted her so much.