West With the Night – Beryl Markham

This picture is not my finest dietary moment, I’ll admit. Carrying on…

Beryl Markham’s West With the Night was one of the the many books on my list I was looking forward to reading. I didn’t have much knowledge of its contents, but I knew that it was written by an aviatrix born in the early 1900s and that alone was exciting enough.

West With the Night is marketed as a travel book, but also an autobiography/memoir. What is interesting with this is that, again, this isn’t a travel book–she flies, yes, but only one chapter has her undertaking what would be considered “real” traveling. Nor is it an autobiography–it leaves out huge chunks of her life, including her three marriages and the birth of her son (which one might argue, are important life events). The closest accurate descriptor of the three is memoir, and that’s good enough to cover most of what this book is.

Classification issues aside, WWtN is wonderful. Her humor is understated, but snappy, and reminded me of all those sassy one-liners you’ll catch in movies from the 1930s and 40s where everyone is just so very damn clever. She’s dryly amusing, witty, and urbane.

And her adventures? Hard to believe. As a reader, though, I’m choosing to believe them, as that is far more enjoyable than the alternative. From brushes with angry bull elephants to rescuing downed pilots, these moments taken from Markham’s life are wonderful highlights of her life in Africa.

Ah, right. I should have said that earlier up. The bulk of this book takes place in Africa, which is where Markham was raised.

She reminds me of a more mellow Miss Phryne Fisher which, I confess, was what likely drew me to the book in the first place. I would be entirely unsurprised if Kerry Greenwood drew some of her inspiration for Miss Fisher from Beryl Markham.

The writing ranges from poetic, with the occasional shift to second person, to practical in an easy rhythm, never catching you off-guard or causing transitional error. You feel how Africa was in the early 1900s, you can see what she sees, and it’s magnificent.

Do I have any complaints or notes?

No real complaints, but a point of interest. Being set during the time period it was, and with the subject matter at hand (life in Africa and a love of racehorses and airplanes), the book felt oddly incomplete. At least to me.

There was no love. I don’t mean heady, swept-off-the-feet romance, but just simple love. She married three times and there is no mention of any of that. There are dashing men running around, teaching her how to fly, accompanying her on elephant hunts, and it left me feeling like there was an odd hole in the story.

And perhaps that’s my own expectations. Which is a trifle strange, as often I’ll rant about the inclusion of love in female travelogues. I suppose, though, now that I think about it, it’s because of Miss Phryne Fisher, aviatrix and lover of many. This book read like I would expect Miss Fisher’s early years to read like, and I kept waiting for Markham to jump into bed with any of her male companions. And maybe she did. Or maybe she didn’t.

It’s funny, how this fictional character is informing my expectations of a real woman. “Of course she slept with Tom Black and Baron Blix,” I think. “Miss Fisher wouldn’t have let that opportunity slide!”

But she’s not Miss Fisher.

No, she’s just a brilliant, one-time author who wrote a collection of stories about her life in Africa, and never wrote again. I wonder what she was like in person. The particular edition that I linked to at the beginning of this blog was to a newer version of the copy I have, which has an intro by Martha Gellhorn that tells of meeting her, of what she was like (albeit briefly). It’s much at odd with the image of Markham that arises from her stories, but there was so very much left out.

It leaves me wondering about the image of the author, about the author’s image of herself, and the things we choose to include and leave out of the internal (and, in this case, external) narratives of our lives.