It’s been some time since I posted on this site, and I have lots of catching up to do. For now, I’ll make do with flash reviews of three fictional accounts about notable women from my spring reading. A common thread among all of them is their focus on these women’s relationships with men and on the way all three women chafed against the limitations that were placed upon them as females in a particular time and place.
I’ve never had the slightest interest in learning to fly a plane, but I’ve long been fascinated by women like Harriet Quimby, the first American woman to become a licensed pilot, and Amelia Earhart, an aviatrix who accomplished many firsts. That’s why I was drawn to Paula McClain’s novel, Circling the Sun, based on the life of English-born Beryl Markham. I knew about Beryl Markham as the first woman to cross the Atlantic east to west–nine years after Lindbergh did it in the other direction. Amazing enough, but reading this beautifully researched fictional account of her life gave me some sense of the woman she must have been–of her longing for autonomy and how difficult it was for a woman to achieve that autonomy in her time and place—early twentieth century Africa.
Markham’s father moved his family from England to Kenya when she was only four. Here he established a farm and became a well-known racehorse trainer while Beryl enjoyed a free-spirited childhood in the African bush. Abandoned by her mother around the time she was eight, Beryl grew fiercely independent. Her father lost the farm after a prolonged drought and moved to South Africa with his new wife while Beryl was a teenager, and the young woman stayed behind, disastrously marrying an abusive drunkard from a neighboring farm. The two eventually divorced.
Beryl ran with the rich and famous among the European ex-pat set in Kenya including Karen Blixen, the Danish writer most of us know as Isak Dinesen, and the wealthy Mansfield Markham, who became her second husband and father of her only child. She was linked to a number of high profile men over the years, and her love life was always complicated.
Self-sufficiency was also essential to Markham, and she struggled to make her way in the harsh world of the African bush. While still in her twenties, she became the first woman to become a professional race horse trainer in Africa, a career in which she found considerable success. Later, she became a bush pilot, and she achieved a number of airborne “firsts,” most notably her trans-Atlantic flight.
McClain’s novel brings Markham and her Kenyan world to life with beautifully drawn landscapes and richly textured character studies. Drawing on Markham’s own beautiful memoir, West With the Night, McClain created that rarest of things: a book that kept me thinking about it for days after I turned the last page.
After reading Circling the Sun, I couldn’t wait to read McClain’s The Paris Wife, a fictional account of Ernest Hemingway’s courtship of Hadley Richardson and their time together in Europe. Hemingway was only twenty when he met Richardson, a St. Louis woman eight years his senior.
Hadley’s childhood had been a trial. She endured an overprotective mother who restricted her every move and the suicide of her father after financial reverses. Hadley left Bryn Mawr after a couple of years at her mother’s insistence, and she spent her early twenties nursing her ailing mother even as she tried to develop a career as a concert pianist.
Shortly after her mother’s death, she met Hemingway while visiting a friend in Chicago. The two embarked on a sometimes tortured but relatively quick courtship, much of it carried on via correspondence, and they married in 1921. Soon after, they sailed off to Paris where Hemingway doggedly pursued his writing career.
McClain brings to life this marriage of two tortured souls. Already, Hemingway was engaged in the heavy drinking and the fiercely competitive relationships with other writers for which he became famous. We see him repeatedly alienate friends, including Gertrude Stein and John Dos Passos, and flail against his feelings of literary insecurity. And we see Hadley try desperately to be the kind of woman Hemingway needed her to be, a losing proposition to be sure. Hadley Richardson is not the fiercely independent woman that Beryl Markham was, but in McClain’s hands, we see a woman who manages to summon considerable inner resources to leave her troubled marriage and build a contented life.
One of McClain’s particular skills—recreating the landscape of another time and place—is on bold display in The Paris Wife. I could almost feel the rainy dreariness that overshadowed most of Hadley’s days in the Hemingways’ grungy Latin Quarter apartment and the reckless Bacchanalian world of Spain’s sunlit bullfighting circuit.
Dawn Tripp is also adept at recreating landscapes, inner as well as outer. Her novel, Georgia, explores famed American painter Georgia O’Keeffe’s relationship with famed photographer and art promoter Albert Stieglitz. O’Keeffe met Stieglitz in 1916 after a friend of hers shared some of Georgia’s abstract charcoal drawings with the gallery owner. Struck by the purity of form and line, Stieglitz arranged a showing of them. The two met when O’Keeffe arrived unannounced to view the show, and the chemistry between them was unmistakable.
In spite of the fact that Stieglitz was married and more than two decades older, O’Keeffe proved unable to ignore her deep attraction to this powerful and influential man, a man who seemed to understand her as an artist in a way no one else had. Within a year, O’Keeffe gave up her teaching job in Texas to move to New York where Stieglitz set her up in a tiny studio and supported her work as a full-time painter. He also slowly but surely built her reputation as an artist, launching her wildly successful career. Inevitably, O’Keeffe’s patron became her lover, and after a messy divorce, Stieglitz married her.
Tripp’s O’Keeffe is a compelling woman, one who is at first equally motivated by her passion for art and her passion for Stieglitz. Over time, however, Stieglitz’s controlling ways and his wondering eye erode the connection as O’Keeffe struggles to shape her own reputation and her own life. This novel is a raging, feverish book, populated by characters moved by mighty desires and extraordinary talents. (Added bonus: it’s a bit of a bodice-ripper!)
I had the pleasure of meeting Dawn Tripp at a Hub City Book Shop writer’s luncheon a couple of weeks ago. Tripp described becoming drawn to understand O’Keeffe after seeing an exhibit of the artist’s abstracts—the very same abstracts that attracted Alfred Stieglitz. Tripp explained that she felt compelled to understand the kind of woman who could create such compelling compositions of line and shape at a time when abstraction was beyond avant-garde on the American—and world—art scene. I enjoyed hearing about Tripp’s journey into the mind and heart of Georgia O’Keeffe, so I had to read the book, and Georgia quickly found its way to the top of my reading pile.
So there you have it: three great reads about notable women from history to add to your summer readings list. If you want to read more about the authors and the subjects of these fine books, here are some places to start. As always, you can order these books online at Hub City Book Shop.
West With the Night, Beryl Markham’s memoir
A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway’s account of the Paris years
Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life, by Roxanna Robinson
Aviator Beryl Markham Soars Again In ‘Paris Wife’ Author’s New Book
The Heningway Project interviews the author of The Paris Wife
Beyond “the eternal feminine”: Novelist Dawn Tripp reimagines the life and work of Georgia O’Keeffe