Circling the Sun
By Miriam R. Kramer
Africa is not for the weak. When I lived in Africa as a child, I went on safari in Kenya and Tanzania. A hungry mongoose targeted my brother as the smallest and therefore weakest member of our group, causing us to grab him and retreat to the top of a table. A monkey grabbed the food out of my hand and then nimbly leaped off me and onto a tree branch. At night elephants brushed by our huts as they followed traditional paths to water. I saw firsthand that humans living on these harshly beautiful stretches of grassy savannah, cooler highlands, lakes, and forests always encounter the predators and prey inhabiting them. At some point early colonial settlers had to decide whether they would find the strength to eke out an existence by farming the land and raising livestock, refusing to become prey to either the wild or personal circumstances. Paula McClain’s book Circling the Sun gorgeously depicts the remarkable horse trainer, farmer, aviator, free spirit and inadvertent feminist pioneer Beryl Markham. Markham decided not to become prey as she matured from child to adult in the British East Africa Protectorate of the 1920s, suffered and found happiness while facing huge challenges, and wistfully watched her colonial home change as it became Kenya.
As McClain notes, Markham’s parents moved to the British East Africa Protectorate from England, where her mother could not grow accustomed to the hardships involved in starting a farm in the isolated area of Njoro. She took Beryl’s frail brother Dickie back to England when Markham, then Beryl Clutterbuck, was a small child, leaving her under the care of her farming, horse-training father. Through benign neglect, Beryl grew up a wild urchin running free with her best male friend from the Kip tribe, hunting game and planning to become an African warrior. Without a mother, she deliberately became tougher, putting her loss into the past and looking forward as a way to survive the emotional hole left in her life. As she became a horse-loving teenager she made the decision to remain independent, fighting against becoming prey to either Africa’s dangers or the society that expected her to obey colonial female conventions of the time. She rebelled against the lady-like advice of her father’s common-law wife, running away from boarding school multiple times. Back at the farm, she matured while breeding and riding horses at Green Hills, her father’s farm over a hundred miles from the growing provincial town of Nairobi.
When her father lost Green Hills due to economic hardship and had to find a job, young Beryl faced her first substantive test of independence at age 16. Her dad urged her to marry a handsome farmer in Njoro to make sure she had a secure existence. Despite her internal doubts, she had no suitable place to go unless she wanted to stay in her beloved Njoro and marry Jock Purves, a Scottish-born farmer. She soon recognized her mistake and decided to divorce him, have love affairs, and break free from a domestic life of traditional women’s duties. As a result, she started gaining a reputation within the incestuous, gossiping colonial community. Her decision to become the first female horse trainer in Kenya led to grudging respect for her abilities despite her non-conformity. She found that she could love others and her experiences but not chafe in chain-like bonds to people, convention, or the past.
Paula McClain is a lovely, atmospheric writer of historical fiction. Her lucid, penetrating language carries the reader along and creates a completely believable reality in her depiction of pre– and post–World War I East Africa. I also adored her book The Paris Wife, which profiled Ernest Hemingway’s little-known first wife, Hadley, and their marriage as they lived artists’ lives with the Lost Generation in Paris and abroad. Circling the Sun also addresses Beryl Markham (her best-known married name) as an important bohemian and underrated figure in history, a beautiful woman who attracted scandal through her real and reputed love affairs and atypical female occupations as a vanguard horse trainer and the first woman to fly from England to the Americas. She never claimed the ultimate fame that the Countess Karen Blixen, otherwise known under the nom de plume Isak Dinesen, attained through writing Out of Africa in 1937. Markham’s writing in her own 1942 book, West with the Night, was praised to the very heavens she soared through by Ernest Hemingway. (Reputedly he also made a pass at her while traveling with his second wife in Africa, so there is even a historical connection between McClain’s two books.) Yet Markham’s work achieved average sales upon release, and her notoriety turned into obscurity until the re-release of her book in the 1980s.
McClain’s novel is so bittersweet, so gorgeous in its description of Markham’s relationship with the East African land and animals, her absolute inner need for freedom, and her suffering through the ups and downs of finances and societal acceptance. She paints a vivid and engaging picture of the many complicated relationships in Markham’s life. The most important and symbolic was the romantic triangle between Blixen, Markham, and Denys Finch Hatton, Karen Blixen’s true love. Finch Hatton was an intelligent and highly attractive individual, a cultured, charming aristocratic big game hunter whom Blixen described in Out of Africa. Unlike Blixen, who wanted to marry Finch Hatton, Markham shared with him a disdain for societal bonds. They cared deeply for another, despite his intense and enduring love affair with Karen Blixen, who eventually divorced her husband in a vain attempt to solidify her ties with Finch Hatton. He was Icarus, reaching for the sun in his eternal and eventually doomed quest to live to the very limits of experience. Markham circled his sun, knowing better than to try to rein him in or tame him, despite her overwhelming love for him. Throughout Markham’s doomed marriages and affairs, she turned to Finch Hatton whenever possible, keeping their affair necessarily secret from Karen Blixen, whom she also cared for greatly as a friend and exceptional raconteur. Through Markham’s relationship with Finch Hatton, she understood that change was preferable and inevitable. He exemplified to her that living in the past was unnatural, a way of being that would never help her survive in her beloved, unyielding, and ever-shifting environment.
Reading this novel brought me back to sunny, flickering memories of traveling among elephant herds in Kenya, watching rhinos snort in a small muddy lake in Tanzania, and hours spent scattering wildebeest herds and galloping towers of giraffes as we crossed golden plains and the occasional stands of thorn and flame trees. McLain’s depiction of the endless change, death, birth, and renewal in Africa rings true. It makes for a curiously comforting depiction of eternity. In McLain’s eyes, Markham experienced a pantheistic sense of connection to the universe through riding over endless plains, rifts, and valleys, looking up and then flying towards that brilliant African sun. In this work, Markham keeps her relationship with Finch Hatton alive through her endless adoration for the land and skies of the Africa she had embraced as a child, the homeland she would embrace forever.