Originally reviewed April 2004

The Book

If you're looking for excitement and adventure in your reading, Beryl Markham's autobiography West with the Night is an excellent choice. An English aristocrat raised in Africa, her life reads like a blood-stirring adventure novel. The fascinating adventure stories never stop, almost dancing from exploit to dangerous, hair-raising exploit. From her childhood in Africa in the very early years of the 20th century, through her successful solo flight across the Atlantic from east to west — the first ever such flight — they are all lovingly described vignettes of extraordinary verbal beauty.

In some ways, however, the book is frustratingly incomplete. What happened to Arab Ruta, her loyal native childhood friend? What did Beryl do with her beloved horse, Pegasus, while she was learning to fly airplanes? Did she have any siblings, lovers, husbands, children? What of her father — what happened to him? What of her life after the daring and dangerous trans-Atlantic journey? Her pioneering flight occurred in 1936, but the book was written in 1942, after all. How does someone who appears so closely attuned to the land, the people, the animals, the very world she was inextricably entwined with… end up working almost obsessively in the (then) somewhat isolating world of machinery and flight? The reader is left wishing for more, wondering how things happened; where such a complex personality ended up.

In other ways it makes perfect sense, though, I think. Her world, the Africa of that time, was always changing, always in turmoil, struggling to deal with the friction of colonization. She mentions never being able to go home almost wistfully, and on more than one occasion. Once she writes of a group of flyers drinking a toast to Africa before heading off for Europe for a short visit — a toast to an Africa already gone, since it would be irrevocably changed before they could return. When change is an inescapable constant, memory must fill in as the thread of consistency weaving together a life and a personality from the scattered anecdotes which make up a person. And yet, we know now even memory itself is nothing more than chemical reactions within the brain, forming a personally satisfying fiction.

How fragile and acrobatic must one's worldview be, in order to survive emotionally, when one knows a journey of only a month will force that worldview to change yet again? How strong must one's personality become, how indomitable the spirit, in order to weather the battering of constant change? It is that search for self, I believe, which made the book so compelling. Markham's life, as described in the book, was full of contradictions and difficulties. As a white girl in Africa and a woman in a man's society, she describes rising to these challenges initially without really thinking about it. Slowly, though, you can feel her growing resentment at having always to prove herself as being not just as good as the men, but better, in order to be accepted.

As a child she hunts unselfconsciously with the Murani men, even though only men are supposed to hunt. With sparsely expressive words she describes the feelings, the emotions, the sensations of the three humans and their dogs unflinchingly facing charging lion and warthog when armed only with spears; of her heading off alone to track her hunting dog after being reassured by one of the badly injured men he could walk home unaccompanied; of sitting next to the slain warthog with her courageous dog's bleeding body as darkness falls and the hunting creatures of the night start to call.

There is no feeling of being 'lesser' here — of the girl child really understanding or caring about the gender challenge of the boy's spear she fearlessly carries and successfully wields. Her growing dissatisfaction with the gender role she sees no use for, which others wish to force on her, is almost accidentally detailed in the story of the horse race, told with sensual verbal brushstrokes of emotion.

Her frustration at having an extremely promising young colt taken from her by the owner, due to the whispering machinations of another trainer; the delicate, transitory artistry of equine flesh and bone in motion; the blanking-out of sound by the numbing effect of surpassing emotion, followed by the almost blasé relief of success — within the one story is contained a whole economy of emotion and struggle to simply be who one truly is, despite the limiting desires of others. It is this economy of her exploration of others which suggests so strongly the constant tension of her own inner exploration, of what appears to be her spirit's insistence on the independent, truthful self.

No lovers, no husbands nor children, are mentioned as such. Those few people who are related in the stories are painted in as anecdotally, as iconically, as she paints the landscape of Africa itself — as if she expects them to change utterly as well, once she's departed their presence for any length of time at all. It is herein, I believe, we find the clue to her motivation in moving so thoroughly over to the world of flight and machinery. She herself writes movingly of the tiny, self-sufficient, enclosed world of the cockpit at night, while in flight. Life narrows down to very simple things at that time — there is the plane, and the flyer herself.

The machine does not judge her by her sex; it is incapable of doing so. It demands merely a strong spirit, training, and skill, which she provides in single-minded, dedicated abundance. In return it gives her freedom — the freedom to go where she wishes, to be who and what she wants to be, to rise above the trammeling bonds of a clingy, demanding, chafing society. The jobs she takes require, on the whole, the accomplishment of clear, straightforward goals — that she fly well, or die. There is no greater freedom, no deeper honesty I know than that — and no better time to examine one's soul than when one is utterly alone and isolated, in the night.

The Background

While writing this review I did a little research, and discovered several interesting things. Beryl Markham was married three times, was pregnant at least once, traveled extensively throughout her life, and had far more dangerous exploits than she relates in her book.

There's also a long-standing argument, thoughtfully reviewed here and interestingly discussed (in passing) here, about who exactly wrote West With the Night — was it her, her third husband, or the two of them working together? In the end I don't think it matters. What's important to me is the empathy and self-understanding one can find, following her through the literary window she provides into a complex, questioning, difficult, and ever-changing life.

[Links to text-only versions of the above articles, should any of them die:
"interesting things"
"far more dangerous exploits"
"thoughtfully reviewed here"
"interestingly discussed here"]


It seems her struggle to find her true self, in the midst of constant transformation and social pressure all about her, endured throughout her life. She mentions Arab Ruta's words, of how he traveled extensively all over Africa before returning home, yet found himself not much the wiser for it; of his finding wisdom more in obedience to his heart than in constant travel. Under such circumstances, how else could she react except strongly (or "willfully" to her culture's eyes), when her heart insisted she be true to her Self? Is it surprising she, an "Other" of her society, should freely identify more with the colonized natives than with a culture which demanded obedience and passivity of her? She is not politically correct — not even for her own time.

As Beryl herself noted, "No human pursuit achieves dignity unless it can be called work, and when you can experience a physical loneliness for the tools of your trade, you see that the other things — the experiments, the irrelevant vocations, the vanities you used to hold — were false to you."

Her "work" changed several times through her life: hunter, horse breeder and trainer, wife and mother, commercial and bush pilot, celebrity, farmer… perhaps writer? To repeatedly take on challenging new roles with flair and courage is a work in and of itself. It is personally encouraging to find someone who struggled indomitably to speak their heart with simplicity and honesty, to be who they truly were, despite the constant, sometimes ungentle pressure of social conformity. The bright spark of such determination provides a guiding light to those who also wish to be more than is expected of them, to find at the end of their journeys that perhaps wisdom or happiness has indeed finally lodged in their souls.

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