It was one of those fortuitous moments when I discovered Ian Mackersey’s biography of one of the pioneer aviators of the early years of long distant flight. which I found on one of my last visits to Ampthill’s bookshop (which is sadly no more) Although the period is outside the research for my current novel, with my kindled interest in early flight I was intrigued to read about a woman who made her name in very much a man’s world. I am also at the beginning of researching for the next!
I was not disappointed. The skill of Ian Mackersey to write a biography with the action, suspense and emotion of the best of novels or films is quite remarkable.
You learn of Jean’s early years and are astounded by her sheer determination, despite relative poverty, to learn to fly, conquer the loneliest of journeys, through sand storms over land and torrential rain over vast dangerous oceans, without so much as a life-jacket (she didn’t have the space in her small Moth or her later Gull) or a radio, (technology existed but her funds did not stretch that far.) The fact that she was ruthless, and on many occasions appeared heartless, did not diminish her amazing skill as an aviator and navigator, with only charts and a torch to guide her way.
Following her world breaking times to fly alone from England to Australia and back again and then on to her homeland, New Zealand, the biography turned into the best example of a private detective novel, where the author and his wife followed Jean’s trail after her disappearance. Giving up was not an option, as they interviewed people who knew Jean in England, Australia, New Zealand, Spain and Majorca. She was an extremely private person, dominated by her mother Ellen throughout her life, and was devastated by her mother’s death. This followed other personal blows of her early but short four years of fame in the early 30’s being brought to an abrupt end; losing the love of her life in a tragic plane crash in Australia and being grounded at the beginning of WW2 and her trusty Gull taken for war use.
Real life is not like a novel. The writer cannot manoeuvre the events to make a neat and happy end and since I did not know what happened to Jean Batten, I was riveted to the last page.
There were a few coincidences which gave me a jolt. Ian informed us that Jean’s plane was once in the Shuttleworth Collection. Since I visit quite regularly I will investigate this and let you know. He also talked to a gentleman who worked for Britannea Airways who actually lives in my village here in Bedfordshire and so I must talk to him too, and finally as an aside Jean Batten visited Guernsey once, albeit briefly!
Anyone who is interested in early aviation or also amazing women in history would enjoy this book.
You can still buy secondhand copies via Amazon although the new copy at £137 is a trifle expensive!