Like many kids of my generation who grew up before the days of mass passenger travel by plane, I read stories of the pioneers of aviation in the Christmas Annuals that my parents gave me. Now everybody takes plane flight for granted, but I still have a sense of awe about flying and I admire the heroism of those early pilots.
I was fascinated by the names: Charles Kingsford-Smith, Amy Johnson, Louis Bleriot. Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, and the Wright Brothers. What fascinated me most about these early aviators, was the fact that some of them were women. In my childhood my mother was a rarity because she drove the family car: many of my friends’ mothers didn’t drive at all, and those who did meekly handed over the keys to their husbands whenever they travelled together. So the idea of women doing something as brave and risky and clever as flying a plane was exotic indeed!
I knew about Nancy Bird, Australia’s pioneer aviatrix and recently read her autobiography, My God! it’s a Woman! I borrowed it from the library because I thought it would be interesting to learn something about the history of Australian aviation prior to reading Fiona Kidman’s new book, The Infinite Air. But truth be told, My God, It’s a Woman! was a bit of a disappointment. I did enjoy the first part, about Nancy Bird’s childhood and early ambitions to fly. It was interesting to read about the barnstorming era and the opening up of the Aussie outback by courageous aviators of both sexes. It was also interesting to see how Nancy Bird overcame the disadvantages of her sex to achieve a whole stack of firsts, and how she went on to have a distinguished career in the service of aviation even when her barnstorming days were over.
But the last part of the book degenerated into a terribly dull catalogue of female firsts. I understand her motivation: she was keen to redress the lack of recognition for women pilots in Australia and these chapters show that there were many remarkable women who did remarkable things. But there are only so many record-breaking feats that one can read about before the interest palls, and that’s what happened. I just got sick of it: so-and-so was the first one to fly from such-and-such, over and over again, without the human interest to enliven it. So while I think this book, in its print form, would be a valuable resource for someone researching the history of aviation in Australia, I fund it rather dull to listen to..
Fiona Kidman’s The Infinite Air, however, is much more interesting. By fictionalising the exploits of Jean Batten, New Zealand’s record-breaking aviatrix, she has created a captivating novel which (if Wikipedia and the bibliography at the back of the book are anything to go by) is a faithful account of Batten’s life. She was an extraordinary woman, who transcended a difficult upbringing to achieve an ambition that was fostered from infancy by her mother, who pinned a newspaper clipping of Louise Bleriot and his monoplane above her cot.
Flying in its early days was an expensive enterprise, and Batten had no money. Her parents separated due to her father’s constant infidelities, and she and her mother lived in straightened circumstances for most of her career. Her father paid for her education, and was keen for her to take up a career as a concert pianist, but when he found out that Jean was having flying lessons instead of music tuition in England he withdrew her allowance. Jean’s mother Nellie, however, was indomitable, and Jean’s ambitions knew no bounds, and their enduring partnership was destined to succeed.
In the pursuit of her ambition, Batten exploited her friendships with men. She was (as you can see from the photo at Wikipedia), a very attractive young woman, and she had a great sense of style. To get the money for flying lessons, flying time, buying planes and repairing them, she became engaged to a number of men when she had no feeling for them, took vast sums of money from them, and ditched them when she no longer needed them. Her real love, apart from one ill-fated romance, was her mother, and when her flying career was over, they lived together, mostly in Spain, until Nellie died.
She broke a remarkable number of records which Kidman brings to life in vivid prose. She was thwarted in her attempts to better Amy Johnson’s flight to Australia, but became the darling of the media as she broke other records, one after the other, including the perilous crossing over the Tasman Sea to complete the first flight from England to New Zealand. It’s extraordinary to view the footage of this slim, elegant young woman, and realise that her career meant flying across vast distances on her own, ditching sometimes in isolated places where she was dependent on the goodwill of complete strangers and handling most of the aircraft repairs and maintenance herself.
Kidman doesn’t labour the point, but Batten must have found the patronising manner of the men around her galling:
In Auckland, the speeches had begun. First the mayor spoke. ‘Words fail me to express adequately to you the feelings of all the persons here today. But Jean you are a very naughty girl, and I really think you want a good spanking for giving us such a terribly anxious time here. We knew you could do it, but we did not want you to run the risk.’
Jean decided to let this go. What was the point of a quarrel when she had barely landed? In Australia, she had been reminded forcibly that, here in the Antipodes, she was in a man’s world.
This had been one of the loneliest flights of her life. The storm had broken soon after she left Richmond. The rain was intense, just like the tropics, only very cold. The cabin began to leak, and the water soaked her shoulders. She was flying blind in low cloud. An albatross provided some company for a few moments. Soon after, emerging from the cloud, she had looked down at what appeared like a wreath in the water, and saw that it was a whale swimming just beneath the surface, so that its back looked green. She thought of the spirit of Moby Dick, and wished intensely that she could see land. At the time of year, whales swam through Cook Strait, and she had a sudden fear that she was passing through the strait and out beyond towards the Pacific Ocean. In a few minutes, in teeming rain, she had seen that her course was true, as she flew over New Plymouth. (p. 275)
I would have wanted to slap that Mayor!
See also a review at the NZ Herald.
Author: Fiona Kidman
Title: The Infinite Air
Publisher: Vintage (Random House) 2013
Source: Review copy courtesy of Random House NZ.
Fishpond: The Infinite Air