West with the Night, 1942 (memoir)
The Splendid Outcast: Beryl Markham’s African Stories, 1987
Beryl Markham (MAHR-kuhm) came to prominence in modern literature almost entirely on the basis of West with the Night, one of the twentieth century’s most compelling memoirs. She was born to Charles B. and Clara (Alexander) Clutterbuck in England, but in 1906 her family went to Kenya, the place she was to call home for the rest of her life, except for the time she spent in the United States in the 1940’s. After a short stay in Kenya, Markham’s mother returned to England, taking Markham’s younger brother with her, and soon thereafter divorced Markham’s father. Without a mother and with a father whose preoccupation with racehorses took up most of his time, Markham grew up almost on her own, in what she later would call a “world without walls.” She had almost no formal schooling, and she defeated a succession of governesses and tutors who tried in vain to discipline her. The one time her father did manage to enroll her in a regular school, she was soon expelled for inciting the other students to riot. She was a voracious reader, however, as well as a competent linguist. She learned the hunting skills of the African natives so well that she was accepted as one of them and was allowed to take part in activities in which no woman, English or native, was ordinarily allowed to participate.
Markham became most proficient at horse training. When her father went bankrupt, she turned her horse-training skills to profit. She was the first woman to be licensed as a trainer in Kenya, and her horses became famous for winning prizes. Her own riding skills were formidable, and it was said that she was absolutely fearless. Her fearlessness led her to accept the challenge in 1936 to fly over the Atlantic Ocean from east to west, becoming the first person to fly solo from England to North America.
Success also brought fame and notoriety. Hollywood beckoned (she acted as technical consultant on one film), but plans to employ her in a film about her own life were scrapped when her screen test proved disappointing. Much publicity surrounded her separation from her second husband, Mansfield Markham (an early marriage to Jock Purves had been short-lived), and her affair with England’s Prince Henry. Beryl Markham also became the subject of gossip once her name was joined with those of world-famous women pilots such as Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson.
Markham was encouraged by the celebrated French flyer and author Antoine de St. Exupéry to write her memoir, West with the Night, and some of his influence can be noted in the book. The book is unmistakably hers, however, in the level of detail, in the honesty of emotion, and in the beauty of a style that overwhelmed Ernest Hemingway with its simplicity. In a letter to his editor Maxwell Perkins, he said that she could “write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers,” and he called it a “bloody wonderful book.” The book reached the top of The New York Times best-seller list when it appeared in 1942. Because of the war, however, its popularity soon faded, and it lay neglected until North Point Press reissued it in 1983, when it became an even greater success than before and brought long-overdue recognition to its author.
The writer Mary S. Lovell was among those who were overwhelmed by the book, and her determination to learn more about its author led her to Kenya, where she spent many hours interviewing Markham in preparation for what was to become the best-selling biography Straight On till Morning (1987). Lovell also located Markham’s long-forgotten short stories, most of which had appeared in popular American magazines in the mid-1940’s, and was instrumental in having them collected in one volume, titled The Splendid Outcast.
After the publication of the memoirs and short stories, questions were raised about the authenticity of Markham’s work, some arguing that much of it was the work of her third husband, Raoul Schumacher, a shadowy figure who claims to have been a screenwriter as well as a ghostwriter. In response Lovell proffered convincing arguments to show that while Schumacher edited West with the Night, the book is Markham’s own. Markham and Schumacher did, however, collaborate on some of the stories in The Splendid Outcast, which Lovell arranges in the edition on the basis of stylistic analysis to determine probable authorship. Lovell succeeded in laying to rest most of the doubts about Markham’s authorship, and others supported her view, among them Kay Boyle, who stated that West with the Night “is too detailed and too impassioned to have been written at second hand.”
Although Markham never published anything else during the remaining forty years of her life, her reputation as a literary figure rests securely on the effortless prose style and timeless narrative qualities of West with the Night. The short stories are of interest principally because they were written by her. In the late 1980’s two television programs were devoted to Beryl Markham’s life: the Public Broadcasting System’s World Without Walls and a made-for-television film of Markham’s life. The renewed attention came too late for Markham to enjoy; she died in Nairobi, Kenya, on August 3, 1986, only two months short of her eighty-fourth birthday and one month short of the fiftieth anniversary of her record-breaking solo flight across the Atlantic.