My 2020 first quarter literary nonfiction reading included two books that focus on the formative years of two very different people: twentieth century aviation pioneer Beryl Markham and eighteenth century wannabe author—and surelywas forger—William-Henry Ireland. Both books are readily available, new and used, from booksellers and in libraries.
West with the Night
Beryl Markham. West with the Night. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983. (paperback) ISBN: 0-86547-118-5
West with the Night is an autobiography written by a pioneering woman quite different from the calico and wagon train pioneer typically encountered in American classrooms. Beryl Markham was born in England but, from the time she was four, the motherless child was reared in Kenya where her teachers and playmates were the natives.
Markham’s story opens with her childhood adventures going hunting barefoot with her Murani friends, seeing “dik-dik and leopard, kongoni and warthog, buffalo, lion, and the ‘hare that jumps.'” She relates an incident which her friend Bishon Singh told her father Beryl had been “moderately eaten by the large lion.”
Markham’s father clawed a farm out of the land, in true pioneer fashion. It was beginning to be profitable when a drought killed it. Markham’s father moved to Peru to raise horses. Beryl, 17, decided to stay in Africa and try for a job training thoroughbreds. Her father advised she saddle up and move to Molo, a town where he knew a few stable owners would be willing to risk having a girl train horses. “After that, work and hope,” he said. “But never hope more than you work.”
Markham was becoming a successful trainer when a chance encounter with a pilot changed her trajectory for a few years. She took flying lessons and became a bush pilot.
In 1936 she decided to try to become the first person to fly solo from London to New York, which meant flying for more than 24 hours in the dark. In the cold atmosphere, the fuel tank vents iced over. Starved of fuel, her plane went down on Cape Breton Island. West became the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo from east to west, but hadn’t made it to New York as she’d hoped to do.
Markham ends her autobiography with that Atlantic flight, but she went on to have further adventures. She went back to Africa and resumed her career as a trainer, becoming the most successful horse trainer in Kenya for a time.
When first published, West with the Night was included in the U.S.A.’s Armed Services Editions, and Ernest Hemingway praised the book, but it wasn’t a great commercial success. The autobiography was rediscovered and republished in 1983. It ranks eighth in National Geographic‘s list of best adventure books. It’s a beautifully written story that both teenage boys and girls can appreciate.
The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare
Doug Stewart. The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare: A Tale of Forgery and Folly. Cambridge, MA, Da Capo Press, 1910. ISBN: 978-0-360-81831-8
Stewart, a freelance journalist, tells the true story of 19-year-old William-Henry Ireland who in 1795 began writing documents that he passed off as the works of Shakespeare.
His father, Samuel Ireland, who thought William-Henry a dolt, got him a job as an unpaid apprentice to a lawyer who was never in the office. Most of William-Henry’s work was sorting through old documents.
William-Henry’s father, an ambitious author and illustrator of a series of travel books, had a keen instinct for what appealed to the public taste and he was obsessed with everything Shakespearean. He collected memorabilia, particularly items associated with famous or notorious figures. Samuel was not adverse to fudging the truth when it was to his advantage to do so.
William-Henry was not stupid, but he had been a failure in school. He had seen no reason for learning Latin or math since he had no plans to use either. (Does this sound like anybody in your classes?) However, he read voraciously, was fascinated by the theater, and loved to copy verse by his favorite authors in an elegant, Elizabethan script.
William-Henry penned his first forgery more or less as a joke. When his father and his father’s friends were taken in, William-Henry was both amused and angry: He was amused that experts didn’t recognize the deception and angry that his father didn’t think him smart enough to have concocted the forgery and its cover story.
Samuel saw fame and profits if William-Henry could get him more manuscripts. Samuel particularly wanted something by Shakespeare: no handwritten copies of his plays were knows to exist. Samuel pushed his son to produce the desired scripts, not realizing that William-Henry would literally produce them.
Stewart takes readers on a tour through late 18th century London using the psychologically damaged William-Henry and his crazy family as the tour guides. Stewart’s text includes 16 pages of intriguing images, and his descriptions of the English playhouses at the end of the 18th century will entertain anyone with even a passing interest in theater.
The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare will probably be heavier reading for high school students than Markham’s story, because Stewart’s book requires wider background knowledge. You might to have students for whom the book is too tough read Stewart’s article about William-Henry Ireland’s forgery career “To Be…Or Not: The Greatest Shakespeare Forgery” in Smithsonian magazine. On the other hand, the emotional and personality issues that the book raises may make it worth the extra effort for students who have what are politely called “issues at home.”
© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni