I imagined that when Beryl Markham died last year at age 83, having lived her last days in a bungalow on the Ngong racecourse near Nairobi, she would be transformed into yet another dim African legend, subject to fluky memories and strong drink. How would we know now whether or not she really was the author of that lyrical autobiography, "West With the Night"? Were the tales of her horsemanship, long-distance flying and extramarital rutting to be believed, or were they just the stuff that makes for good chat at the Muthaiga Club?
Luckily for us, Mary S. Lovell suffered a "spine-tingling sensation" when in 1985 she first heard the name Beryl Markham. This "warning frisson" led her to Kenya, where she spent several weeks in the company of the carefully forgetful, occasionally manipulative but still very alluring legend. These interviews and the painstaking research that followed have resulted in a stunning biography that should silence many of those who doubted Markham's abilities. While the narrative is occasionally flat-footed, repetitious and wide-eyed, this first book by Lovell should endure as a well-wrought, brilliantly researched portrait of an enfant sauvage.
As a child on an untamed farm in the White Highlands of Kenya, Markham more or less selected her own upbringing. Charles Clutterbuck, her father, had arrived in this infant colony with no fortune. Like many other would-be squires, he contemptuously believed that European crops and livestock would produce instant fortunes in Africa, never mind drought, disease and absence of markets. But Charles' greatest aptitude was his eye for a horse. No sooner had he acquired land than he began trading racing stock--a novel entertainment in this barely settled colony.
Clara Clutterbuck lasted hardly more than a year on the remote farm. She left Markham, the younger of their two children, to her husband's care and skived off to more acceptable society in England. Years would pass before Markham saw her mother and brother again. From this moment of maternal "betrayal," Markham's life evolved into a childhood idyll. The unlettered servants raised her, she hunted barefoot through the Mau Forest, kept a pet lion cub and relied on a stable of horses for transport. The three Rs did not figure prominently in this curriculum. When she was 13, she was sent off to school in Nairobi. Here she lasted 2 1/2 years--an episode that represented her only formal education. It came to an end when she was sacked for having tried to start a revolt. Years later, her relative illiteracy would be cited as proof she could never have written those elegant memoirs, "West With the Night."
Lovell takes great care to paint the divergent side of the tomboy--the gawky urchin who loved the piano, hoarded books and was dotty about her quiet, somewhat aloof father. What he did well--ride--she also did well. And even when he was long gone, the author suggests, Markham continued to vie for his attention.
Soon she had grown into her shell of animal elegance. Tall and lithe, exquisitely feminine in manner, she developed a curious but affecting social manner of looking both absorbed in an individual while being detached from the event. At age 16 she took her first husband, a neighbor who, it was said, had agreed to square Clutterbuck's debts in exchange for the hand of his daughter.
Markham's legend as "sporting woman" derives from these days. As she began accumulating silver for her many successes as a horse trainer, her marriage to Jock Purves ran into a snag. Every time she took a lover, it was said, Jock drove a six-inch nail into the post by the front door. By the time they parted, the post resembled a porcupine.
The ensuing period of Markham's life, when she pursued Bror von Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton, the two men in Isak Dinesen's doomed domestic arrangements, are among the most interesting in the book: the voluptuary, slinking from one tent to another, always remaining steadfast in her lovers' confidences yet seeking bigger and bigger prizes and, in the end, appearing to other women as a troubled and unhappy girl. Her marriage to Mansfield Markham, wealthy and aristocratic, ran into difficulties from the start. Even he, who was "simply not up to weight," could not condone his wife indulging in non-stop rounds of "slap and tickle" with his friends in the back of the car. Markham made no further pretense at marital fidelity when she became attached to Prince Henry (later the Duke of Gloucester and brother to two kings), who was on safari with the then Prince of Wales. This interlude earned her a separation from Markham and a modest royal pension, making her a kind of "remittance woman."