Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Beryl Markham’s West with the Night provides fascinating lessons in history, geography, plant and animal wildlife, and courageous living. The title West with the Night refers to Markham’s 1936 feat of flying solo from England across the Atlantic to North America; she was the first person to do so. The 3,600-mile flight was from east to west, and most of the twenty-one hours and twenty-five minutes of the trip were in darkness, against the wind, and over unbroken ocean. It was an extraordinary achievement in an era when there were few pilots with such daring and few women pilots at all.

Most of the book, however, is not about this record-setting flight but about Markham’s years in Africa, where her English father had bought an isolated and remote farm in British East Africa (later Kenya). Markham recalls her childhood, her young adult years as a trainer of thoroughbred horses, and her years as a pilot carrying mail and scouting for elephants. She re-creates for readers a chapter in African history that has disappeared. Her Africa was an untamed land just at the point when European settlers began to bring their traditions and their technology, eventually transforming the country according to their own ideas of progress.

West with the Night is divided into four numbered “books,” each subdivided into chapters whose titles suggest their topics. Chapter 1, “Message from Nungwe,” for example, tells of Markham...

(The entire section is 444 words.)

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

West with the Night is the unconventional autobiography of an unconventional woman. British by birth, Beryl Markham grew up on a remote, colonial farm near Njoro, Kenya. Deserted by her mother and largely ignored by her father, she spent her childhood exploring the primitive African landscape with a dog named Buller and children from the Murani tribe. Markham’s formal education was limited, but her knowledge of African animals, customs, languages, and geography was extensive. She tracked game and used a spear like a native, she spoke fluent Swahili, and she possessed an almost uncanny understanding of horses. As a young woman, she opened her own stable, where she trained a number of prizewinning thoroughbreds. She also knew many of the important public figures of the day, including Edward, the Prince of Wales, and his brother Prince Henry, as well as local celebrities such as game hunters Bror von Blixen-Finecke and Denys Finch-Hatton. During the early 1930’s, Markham learned to fly and became a bush pilot. She delivered mail, passengers, and supplies to much of East Africa; she also scouted game for hunting safaris. In 1936, she became the first person to fly solo from east to west across the Atlantic. These experiences provided the material for West with the Night, an account of her life up to age forty, which aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupery encouraged her to write.

Despite good reviews, West with the Night did not become a popular success until Ernest Hemingway’s correspondence was published in 1981. Hemingway, who had known Markham in Africa, praised West with the Night:She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely...

(The entire section is 698 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Beryl Markham wrote her autobiography in four sections she called books, which she subdivided into twenty-four chapters. Of those chapters, twenty take place in East Africa. Yet the title of the book, West with the Night, refers to her record solo flight across the Atlantic in September, 1936. She flew from Gravesend, England, to Cape Breton Island, Newfoundland. Other pilots had flown solo from West to East, most notably Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, but Markham was the first pilot, male or female, to fly solo across the Atlantic against the prevailing winds. When the book was originally published in 1942, her international fame and reputation was built on that flight.

The title is also symbolic of Markham’s life. Her twenty-one-hour, twenty-five-minute flight in a Vega Gull plane culminated a life spent breaking stereotypes and records. The material she selected for the autobiography illustrates how her life shaped her into a person who flew alone across the Atlantic under adverse circumstances. By extension, her life, and, perhaps, every woman’s life is seen as the process of soloing a small plane across the Atlantic in adverse circumstances.

Book 1 is composed of four chapters describing a flight in 1935 to deliver medicine to a dying miner in a remote area of Kenya. Book 1 ends with the flight back to Nairobi; en route, Markham rescues a friend whose plane has crashed.

Book 2 is composed of chapters 5...

(The entire section is 552 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Houghton-Mifflin was the first publisher of West with the Night. The book should have been a success, but in 1942, the world’s attention was fixed on World War II. Small royalties were generated for about two years, but then the book disappeared and did not emerge again until 1983. Despite its lack of commercial success in 1942, the book was universally acclaimed by critics from The New York Times, Boston Globe, and Saturday Review of Books. The positive reviews mentioned the fascinating content of the story and the lyrical quality of the writing. Critics believed that Markham had contributed to the literature of Africa, flying, and the philosophy of the human spirit.

Some reviewers saw in her lyrical writing the influence of her friend Antoine de Saint-Éxupéry, another writer and aviator. Indeed, isolated passages bear a resemblance to his published works. Nevertheless, the consensus seems to be that he helped her to discover her literary style.

A significant controversy surrounding the original publication was based on rumors that Markham’s third husband, Raoul Schumacher, had ghostwritten the book. The history of events surrounding the book’s publication, however, seems to belie this theory. In March of 1941, Markham met with representatives of Houghton Mifflin. On the basis of four sets of typewritten manuscripts submitted by June 26, 1941, the company accepted her book, and she signed a contract in mid-July of 1941. Markham was introduced to Schumacher in California in August of 1941. It is true that the last six chapters of the book were written after she began living with Schumacher, but her biographer sees no change in writing style. Schumacher at various times made claims that he had been the writer, but chronology and style are cited as the salient arguments against him. He is credited with some editing.

The autobiography’s republication in 1983 continues to bear out the view that Markham added to the literature of the early colonial period of East Africa, to the early history of avionics, and to the literature that speaks about the unyielding spirit of humans to fly, literally and metaphorically. Such bold adventure stories are often the province of men, and this fact may account for the book’s disappearance until 1983. Social attitudes regarding what is proper and acceptable for women have changed substantially since 1942. It is likely that this fact accounts for the continuing revival of Markham’s story.


(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Bull, Bartle. Safari: A Chronicle of Adventure. New York: Viking Press, 1988. Bull chronicles the history of safaris in Africa from 1836. He provides detailed descriptions and photographs of Markham, her friends, and their lifestyles in the British colony of Kenya.

Lomax, Judy. Women of the Air. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1987. Lomax examines women’s contributions in the field of aviation. The chapter on Markham contains anecdotes about her entire life and specific details about her transatlantic solo flight.

Lovell, Mary S. Straight On Till Morning. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. This definitive biography was written after Lovell conducted extensive interviews with Markham. Included is information on her family’s English background and the controversial material that Markham kept out of her autobiography. Numerous pictures of Markham, her family, and friends are presented. Lovell uses for her title one of the titles originally considered by Markham for her autobiography.