Beryl Markham: Remarkable figure spans the ages

Unconventional, iconoclastic, setting the bar. Those are the terms novelist Paula McLain uses in describing Beryl Markham, the subject of her bestseller, Circling the Sun.

It is the story of an independent woman from her youth to adulthood, growing up, as the author says, “on the edge of nothingness” in early 20th century Africa achieving fame as the first woman to fly east to west over the Atlantic and notoriety for her life choices.

Circling the Sun is the selection for Wilton Library’s Wilton Reads program this year, which began with a giveaway of 100 paperback copies of the book and continues with  a Kenya travel talk on May 24, a book discussion on May 25, and showings of two iconic movies about Africa: Out of Africa on May 27 and The African Queen on May 28, all at the library. The program culminates with McLain’s visit to the library on Wednesday, June 1, at 7 p.m. There is no charge to attend and books will be available for purchase and signing. Registration is strongly suggested. Visit or call 203-762-6334.

When asked how she felt about her book being selected McLain said, “I’m so honored, are you kidding me? It is so awesome that a community would be reading my book. The idea that an entire community would be reading one book is so Rockwellian.”

Speaking to The Bulletin last week from her home in Cleveland, she said one of the advantages of reading a book as a group allows for “these really rich dialogues,” and she was excited to hear of the events leading up to her visit.

When she gets here, McLain said she will “talk about what people want to know” — how she finds her subject matter, her research, what is fiction, what is fact, hidden details about her characters. “I love talking about characters,” she said.

And Circling the Sun is nothing if not filled with characters from Beryl herself, her father who built a 1,500 acre farm out of nothing only to lose it, her mother who abandoned her as a four-year-old, the native family she essentially grows up with, friends, lovers and husbands.

McLain isn’t afraid to sauce up a story and Markham’s life lends itself easily to that. The author discovered Markham while reading her memoir, West with the Night, which chronicles her historic flight in 1936.

“It was hard not to be swept away by the romance, bravery, feats of daring,” McLain said. “She’s such an unconventional spirit. To me, it’s just completely delicious.”

But Markham’s book was severely lacking in anything to do with her private life.

“All you have to do is go to her Wikipedia page,” McLain said, to find Markham was married three times. “You wouldn’t know she’s a mother. She mentions almost no women. She doesn’t reveal her mother’s abandonment, and she doesn’t mention Karen Blixen,” another major character in McLain’s book.

Markham’s lapses proved irresistible to McLain “to tell a story she hasn’t told.” Markham “had such a big life but was a private person. She was enigmatic … a sphinx.”

When asked why she thought Markham left out all the juicy details McLain put on her pop psychology hat and said “I don’t think she felt trusting. She was guarded. She didn’t like being vulnerable. She didn’t trust people, she preferred animals. She didn’t understand people.

“Confessionalism didn’t come along until the 50s,” McLain noted, adding people of Markham’s era would never think of divulging such information about themselves.

“She would probably rather be stabbed with a fork than reveal any of these troubling truths,” McLain said.

Still, Markham had no trouble flouting other conventions of her time.

McLain paints Markham as a wild child in her youth, rebelling against table manners, going to school, dressing like a girl. But she winds up married at 16 to a man who expects her to be handmaiden to his master.

At one point in the book after her marriage Beryl says of her father, “He had raised me to be strong and self-sufficient — and I wasn’t that now. Not by a long shot.”

When asked if that’s when Beryl starts to grow up McLain said she saw her life as a trajectory.

“What I attached to as I looked at her story is how she does lose herself over and over. The arc of the book has to do with how she finds herself.

“I’m interested in women’s lives and women’s stories and I can’t tell you how many women I know that have these stories,” McLain said. “First she thinks her father will save her, then the marriage and a whole string of not great relationships. … The arc of the book is how Beryl figures out what she was born to do and no one can help you with that.”

Although Beryl Markham was born in 1902, McLain thinks she “would still be an original now.” She is still relevant because “women and young women coming up today need to have these models with their courage, fortitude and tenacity. She brooked conventions, she wrote her own rulebook, followed her own compass. Don’t we all still need to figure out what we’re meant to do?” McLain asked.

“To show an intimate look like Beryl’s and show the flaws, it’s really a way to invite the reader into the humanity there and to have a broader, more real view of how history is made.”