Her mother was a nurse, shot in World War II in Nepal. She—my mother-in-law—was an Ivy League-educated, motorcycle-driving, garden-planting veterinarian in Vermont… with a pilot’s license. When she passed away after a bout with cancer, two weeks after the birth of my first child, I decided to read her favorite book, Beryl Markham’s West with the Night. It was, I figured, a book for brave women.
Only I didn’t read it. For two years.
My husband and I recently bought the Vermont farmhouse he grew up in and began to move enormous boxes of his mother’s books. One afternoon I found Markham’s memoir hiding beneath stacks of sci-fi and literary fiction.
At first I wasn’t drawn in by the sepia-toned photograph of the dour woman with high cheekbones and lipstick clad in an aviation cap. Beryl looks like the kind of self-important, gin-soaked, snake-tongued woman you’d avoid at a 1940s cocktail party—as though she might cut you with a bowie knife if you spilled chardonnay on her blouse.
Then I read the blurb on the back of the book by none other than Hemingway, taken from a letter to Maxwell Perkins:
…As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer…she can write rings around us all… The only parts of it that I know about personally, on account of having been there at the time and heard the other people’s stories, are absolutely true… I wish you would get it and read it because it is a really a bloody wonderful book.
All this praise from Papa for a woman? (Of note, the part he mentioned about Markham being a “high-grade bitch” was omitted from the blurb.)
And if Papa’s slobbering wasn’t enough to hold my attention, the prose in the first chapter of West with the Night was. The first pages made me ache with writer’s envy… that colorful life, the author’s elegant and worldly detachment posited so crisply on the page:
“From the time I arrived in British East Africa at the indifferent age of four and went through the barefoot stage of early youth hunting wild pig with the Nandi, later training race-horses for a living, and still later scouting Tanganyika Rivers, by aeroplane, for elephant, I remained so happily provincial I was unable to discuss the boredom of being alive with any intelligence until I had gone to London and lived there a year. Boredom, like hookworm, is endemic.”
I was drawn in by the feminist undertones and exoticism of Markham’s motherless African existence, the tales of flying alone without radio over the darkness of primitive Africa to take oxygen to a miner, hunting boar, being nearly mauled by a friend’s half-tame lion. She flew planes, including a record-setting solo trip across the Atlantic, broke horses as well as any man, and tolerated the kind of life where a cheetah might leap into your bedroom window and kill your favorite dog.
And then, midway through the book, quite fascinated with Markham, and wanting the 60-second digestible biography, I conducted the poor-man (aka working mom’s) version of research and looked her up on Wikipedia.
I wish I hadn’t.
There, at the bottom of her entry, was the scandal. There is substantial evidence (outside of Wiki, of course) that indicates Markham did not write West with the Night herself. Though the life story is hers, the prose that Hemingway envied may not have been.
Essentially, many scholars believe that Markham’s third husband Raoul Schumacher, a screenwriter, composed the text from Beryl’s recounted memories. According to scholar Robert O’Brien, Schumacher told his friend Scott O’Dell in 1943 that “Beryl did not write West with the Night or any of the short stories. Not one damned word of anything!” Her biographer, Errol Trzebinski, wrote, “It cannot have been coincidental that the memoir appeared after she had been involved with a man who was an experienced ghost writer.”
The evidence, they say, is rather damning.
(For more information, see O’Brien’s article “Author and Hero in West with the Night” and Michiko Kakutani’s 1993 discussion of Errol Trzebinski’s The Lives of Beryl Markham in the New York Times.)
I found myself wounded by the discovery. A day before I had been smitten, if not downright inspired, by what I presumed to be Markham’s accomplished writing. The fact that this exquisite prose did not belong to a woman immediately brought to mind recent discussions about female ambition—particularly Jennifer Egan’s advice to young female writers: “to shoot high and not cower.”
West with the Night is not sentimental. It is action-oriented, bold, and its heroine is worldly and intelligent, never once blithering on about romance. There is no cowering. Markham, or the voice I presumed was her own, has swagger: “I think I am the first person ever to scout elephant by plane,” she writes.
I wanted Hemingway’s humility to be well-founded. I wanted to believe that Beryl, who grew up in the Kenyan bush without formal education, could dash off a pitch-perfect memoir, that a sublime life could be enough to fuel and inform sublime prose.
But all was not lost; the doubt of authorship, while disruptive, deepened my engagement with the text.
But the river had swallowed itself. It wasn’t a river anymore; it was a proud and majestic flood, a mile-wide flood, a barrier of swift water defying all things that move on legs to cross it.
As I finished the book, I still swooned over the sentences. But could I continue to admire the artistic achievement while ignoring the authorial issues?
Ultimately, I believe taking credit for someone else’s work, even if that person agreed to the terms and was love-struck or paid well, is bogus. If the rumors are true, Markham didn’t do us girls any favors parading around as if West with the Night was her achievement. But despite the controversy, I’ve concluded this book is still worth reading.
“You can live a lifetime and, at the end of it, know more about other people than you know about yourself. You learn to watch other people, but you never watch yourself because you strive against loneliness.”
The prose—written by Markham or Schumacher or some other talented, spineless schmoe—is still killer, the spare specificity, instructive. The portrayal of Africa and early aviation is thrilling. Though perhaps Markham had little literary skill, she lived a remarkable life.
And when I think about what it takes to be a brave woman–to fly over the dark, lion-infested bush solo in a storm; to face down cancer or enemy fire while trying to administer care–this book still matters to me, because it’s beautiful, and because it mattered so much to someone I loved.
It is still a book for and about brave women. Even if it wasn’t written by one.