Beryl Markham on Flying

Beryl Markham
Beryl Markham in 1936

What if you wrote a book, and then people said you didn’t write it, and then people said you did, and then people said it doesn’t really matter anyway.

Meet Beryl Markham (1902-1986).

Beryl Markham grew up on her father’s horse farm in Kenya. She became the first licensed woman horse trainer in Kenya and in England, but that is not what she is remembered for. 

Markham, the first woman to earn a commercial pilot’s license, became the first woman pilot to fly solo east to west across the Atlantic. In September 1936, she took off from Abingdon, England flying into heavy winds and rough weather in the dark of night. Although she hoped to reach New York, she was lucky to survive a crash landing in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, when her fuel line froze. It has been said that this was a greater accomplishment than Lindbergh’s flight because she had to fly directly into the wind the entire time and for the last nineteen hours flew blind.

In 1942 she published her memoir West with the Night. Well-received at first, it was soon forgotten in the turmoil of WW II. However, a compliment for the work, found in one of Ernest Hemingway’s letters, led to the book being republished forty years later in 1982 to critical acclaim and just in time to provide a comfortable end of life to an impoverished Markham. 

Questions soon arose as to whether or not she actually wrote the book. Raol Schumacher, her lover and third husband was a Hollywood screenwriter and claimed that he had written the work. Later, her biographer, Mary Lovell, in Straight on Till Morning, asserted that this was not possible as the book was submitted to Houghton Mifflin before she met Schumacher. However, Errol Trzebinski in his biography The Lives of Beryl Markham shows this chronology to be wrong–that Schumacher had been her lover before the book was submitted. Still, this chronology does not prove that Schumacher actually wrote it. So the question of whether it was dictated, ghosted, or closely edited, or was Beryl’s work alone must remain ever unknown. 

The following excerpt is from West with the Night and describes the fear of crashing. As you read it, think about whether this could have been written by someone who had never flown a small plane in the wilderness.

All of it makes sense–the smoke, the hunt, the fun, the danger. What if I should fly away one morning and not come back? What if the Avian fails me? I fly much too low, of necessity, to pick a landing spot (assuming that there might be a landing spot) in such a case. No, if the engine fails me, if a quick storm drives me into the bush and sansivera–well, that is chance and that is the job. Anyway, Blix told Farah and Ruta what to do if I am gone for a longer time than my supply of petrol might be expected to last–get a telegraph by foot or lorry, and wire Nairobi. Maybe somebody like Woody would begin the search.

Meanwhile, haven’t I got two quarts of water, a pound of biltong–and the doctor’s bottled sleep (should I be hors de combat and the Siafu hungry that night)? I certainly have, and moreover, I am not defenseless. I have a Luger in my locker–a gun Tom has insisted on my carrying, and which can be used as a short rifle simply by adjusting its emergency stock. What could be better? I am an expedition by myself, complete with rations, a weapon, and a book to read–Air Navigation, by Weems.

Whose voice do you hear?


3 Replies to “Beryl Markham on Flying”

  1. I am 68 yrs old and have never heard her name until tonight. My wife has me watching Good Witch…which is a HallMark show. FANTASTIC STORYLINE.

  2. This Story about Beryl Markham is well known. Just to let you know as a relative of Beryl and first hand information about her, I can categorically state that she DID write the book herself as she was a very eloquently spoken person, However, Raol Schumacher did do a few edit changes to her spelling ONLY when she showed him what she written prior to sending it off for publication.

    1. I am so glad to hear from you. Beryl Markham was an amazing woman for her time. I believe the fact that her authorship was questioned at all reflected the attitudes toward strong women more than anything else.

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