The Infinite Air
Of all the technological accomplishments in a century studded with them, the advances made in heavier-than-air aviation between 1903 and 1939 must have seemed to those alive at the time to be the most symbolic of the perfectibility of humanity. When the French inventor and pioneering aviator Louis Blériot managed the first aerial crossing of the English channel, it fired the European imagination. WWI provided an acceleration of aircraft technology, and sparked a golden age of aviation. Aero clubs sprang up all over England, and a plane and the ability to fly it became de rigueur for the well-to-do.
Aviators were soon vying with one another to set records for first and fastest: Arthur Whitten Brown and John Allcock made the first non-stop crossing of the Atlantic in 1919. In the same year, the Macpherson Smith brothers won a £10,000 prize offered by the Australian government for accomplishing the first transit by air from England to Australia. Charles Lindbergh made the first solo crossing of the Atlantic in 1927. Charles Kingsford-Smith and Charles Ulm crossed both the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea in 1928.
As human beings increasingly demonstrated their emancipation from gravity, anything must have seemed possible. Surely it was only a matter of time before we triumphed over other facts of life: death, maybe, perhaps even taxes.
What we often forget, in an age in which taking to the air is as routine and more comfortable than taking a bus, is the sheer guts it must have taken to perform those feats. Early aircraft were quite literally screwed, glued and stitched together from wood and fabric; steel came later, and aluminium and magnesium alloys later still. For a couple of decades, pilots sat in open cockpits, not at all insulated from the elements or the swoop of vertigo. Engine technology was rudimentary – anyone who ever owned an English car will appreciate the leap of faith it was to entrust your life to one. Navigation was by map, compass and even sextant. Instruments told you which way up you were and how fast you were going and little else. Communication was by hand waving or signal lamp. Little wonder early fliers died like flies. “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots”, as a flying instructor in Fiona Kidman’s latest novel warns his student.
So much for those magnificent men in their flying machines. How much braver were the women, surprising numbers of whom found the courage to defy, not only gravity, but also the conventional notion of what was the proper scope of their ambition. Harriet Quimby became the first woman to cross the English Channel only three years after Blériot, in 1912. Amelia Earhart flew solo across the Atlantic only four years after Lindbergh. Amy Johnson set numerous records in the early 1930s, often eclipsing those set by her erstwhile husband, James Mollinson, and was the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia in 1932. And then, of course, there was our very own Jean Batten, who sprang to international prominence in 1934 when she broke Johnson’s record for the fastest solo flight from England to Australia on her third attempt.
Jean Batten is an attractive subject for an historical novelist. She is, as she is described on the cover of Kidman’s The Infinite Air, an “enigmatic” figure in the historical record. She is a demonstration of the fundamental principle of aviation that what goes up must come down. She came from obscurity, born to a Rotorua dentist and his wife on September 15, 1909, just six weeks after Blériot’s crossing of the English channel. The altitude she reached was as spectacular as the rate of her climb: she was just 25 when she became the world’s most famous New Zealander and “the Garbo of the skies”. And when, after four years pinioned in the searchlight beam of international celebrity, the world moved on – war and, it seems, the failure of her nerve, put an end to her adventures in aviation – she returned to obscurity. Little is known of her long, lonely fall. She moved restlessly from one place to another, and died in 1982 on the island of Majorca of complications from a dog bite, which she refused to have treated. She was buried in a pauper’s grave, and it was five years before the circumstances of her death became known, finally revealed to the world by a documentary crew.
This is the ideal situation, as it seems, for the historical novelist: the silences in history give the imagination some elbow room. For, whereas a novelist creates characters from scratch and their lives and doings follow, the job of the historical novelist is more a kind of reverse engineering, taking the actions and utterances of their protagonist and inferring their character. Where the life – especially the interior life – of an historical figure is well known, the imagination may be constrained, and the story becomes a glorified biography: a recent example that springs to mind is C K Stead’s Mansfield. Although Batten published her autobiography in two volumes, her interior life remained largely veiled.
Batten seems a natural fit for Kidman, in much the same way that Elizabeth Guard, the main character in her previous historical novel, The Captive Wife, proved to be. Her long-standing preoccupation is with the place of women within society, the struggle that it is for women to realise their individuality in the midst of social expectations. Batten was the very emblem of a strong and courageous woman, but her celebrity owed as much to her glamour as to her daring. Indeed, some historians have accused her of using her sexual charms to further her ambitions in aviation: while she is rumoured to have been romantically involved with a number of men, some of whom supported her financially, she never married. In Kidman’s sympathetic hands, Batten is more naive and less calculating and egotistical than history has regarded her: she finds herself the target of overbearing men who are prepared to give her money and plane parts while they still believe there is a chance she will consent to marry them, and who prove vindictive when she makes it clear she remains a free spirit.
The best bits in The Infinite Air, the bits where the author shows her chops, have Batten on the ground. She is particularly good on Batten’s relationships, which have the ring of truth. Her father, Fred, is a credible (if not exactly likeable) type for most of the men in her life. Frank Norton, Victor Dorée and Edward Walter all more or less presumptuously press their suit, daring her to choose between flying or a lifetime with them. Each seems surprised when she prefers the company of thin air. Beverley Shepherd asks her to make the same choice and, in his case, she is ready to acquiesce – until he is killed in an air accident the day they were supposed to be reunited. She flirts with Kingsford-Smith and has a fling with Charlie Ulm. And the only truly enduring relationship of Batten’s life, that with her indomitable mother Nellie, is beautifully drawn, and the scene of her death, aged 89, in Jean’s arms, is very moving.
Kidman contextualises Batten’s feats nicely: while she and her ilk were gadding about the globe in their expensive toys, the world economy was crashing, rendering the plight of the poor desperate. When she gives a speech in Hokitika, a man asks her to think of the plight of the workers, who haven’t received a £500 prize for their achievements. “Who,” he trenchantly asks, “do you think you are?”
The temptation for historical novelists is to move their character amongst their illustrious contemporaries. Kidman has some fun in indulging this. “Fleming. Ian Fleming,” the author introduces himself when Batten meets him (and Noel Coward) in Jamaica, and Batten is the inspiration for “Solitaire” in Casino Royale: “a beautiful woman … with dark hair. She wears white silk dresses, and she doesn’t like men. Or so she says.” The young Batten is a friend of Freda Stark, but drifts away. The famous Batten bumps into Jack Lovelock on the Central Plateau. The older Batten dines with Winston Churchill, who dotes on her. Kidman excels at writing the English of the day, and quite the prettiest speech in the book is that delivered by Lord Wakefield, Batten’s patron, on their first meeting.
But the passages describing Batten’s time aloft, in her element, the infinite air, are brusque and little different to Batten’s own prosaic descriptions. It’s almost as though Kidman can get into the cockpit with Batten, but not quite into her head when it’s in the clouds. And thus, perhaps the single most interesting question about Batten – what drove her to do it? – remains unanswered.
John McCrystal is a Wellington reviewer.