The Infinite Air is a novel that brings together much that is known about the international aviation legend Jean Batten and through research, letters, radio excerpts brings her character and personality to life, in a more understanding and compassionate way than some of the more judgemental depictions of her in the past, views that hastened to depict her as a gold-digger, due to her adept success at raising the necessary funds to support her desire to break long haul aviation records.
She was New Zealand’s most famous aviator, celebrated around the world in the 1930’s, as she attempted record-breaking solo flights from England to Australia and back, one of the few who survived such daring escapades, though sadly she would die in relative obscurity in Majorca, Spain buried in a pauper’s grave, without anyone from her native New Zealand, aware of the loss of this great female legend.
Fiona Kidman brings the story back to Jean Batten’s birth in Rotorua, New Zealand in September 1909 and the symbolic reference and future inspiration of a photograph her mother pinned above her cot in 1910 of the French aviator, Louis Blériot, the first man to fly the English Channel. It was an image lodged early in her young mind and the seed of a passion that would consume her totally as a young adult.
Jean Batten was the only daughter of the family with two older brothers, one she was close to in childhood, though the disintegration of the family, when her mother could no longer support her husband’s infidelities, created a distance between between the siblings as well as the parents. She would eventually lose contact with her family and country (except the constant companion and guidance of her mother) when she moved permanently to live in Europe.
As a child and a young adult she did well in school and was passionate about dance and played classical piano. Although her mother had financial difficulties after separating from her husband, she did her best to keep her daughter in a good school and to pursue those interests. Jean excelled at all activities but there was only one that she dreamed of to the point of obsession and would become her sole purpose for the short period she was able to pursue it.
She was on her way to becoming a successful concert pianist (a career her father supported), though she nurtured that flame of interest in aviation, when her true passion was ignited by news of Charles Lindbergh’s solo non-stop crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. In 1929, she travelled with her mother to Australia and met, flew with and developed a friendship with the aviator Charles Kingsford Smith. From that moment on she became obsessed with wanting to fly and create world records, encouraged by her mother.
In early 1930, she sold her piano to fund a passage to England where she joined a London Aeroplane Club, obtained her pilot’s licence and set about quickly to challenge the record for a solo flight from England to Australia, first set by the English pilot Amy Johnson. She made friends and attracted suitors at the Club and through her connections, managed to acquire herself an aircraft, an astonishing feat given how she and her mother struggled to maintain the social status they aspired towards. They were not wealthy, they were equally determined and driven by Jean’s ambition to succeed.
Jean Batten was renowned for her navigation skills and was a confident flyer, something that might be said about most aviators attempting solo records at the time, they had to prepare well, and to be prepared to take great risks to fly with the knowledge that if anything went wrong, death or luck were the likely outcomes.
In her first two attempts at the record Batten got into trouble. The first flight she became caught in a sandstorm over the desert in Iraq, landed and slept under the wing. She continued on but experienced engine failure and crash landed near Karachi, wrecking the plane.
Her next attempt, after obtaining the sponsorship of Charles Wakefield of Castrol Oil, who funded a second-hand gypsy moth, after landing in Marseille to refuel she was warned not to continue due to the weather, but was determined to continue, the authorities refused to help her start the engine, then forbade her to depart without signing an indemnity making her fully responsible for the consequences.
It was an attitude she became used to confronting – she didn’t hesitate to sign it and took off into the headwind of a blustery storm with limited visibility, heading for Rome. Her engine spluttering, out of fuel, she was preparing to crash in the sea when the lights of the city appeared, enabling her to navigate her way to a semi-successful crash landing, one that clipped her wings which would require replacing and in ten days she was back in England setting off for her third and ultimately successful attempt.
Dame Fiona Kidman, the New Zealand author of more than 20 novels has chosen to fictionlise the story of Jean Batten’s life, in order to bring out more of her character and the early years of her life that contributed to her passion. For a young woman who did not come from a wealthy family, who was not married, though she was engaged a few times, her successes were and extraordinary accomplishment, that were marred only by the onset of World War 2 when her plane was confiscated and perhaps even more so by certain tragedies that touched her life and dramatically altered its course.
The novel pays a fitting tribute to this lost heroine of the skies and sees past that ‘driven’ aspect of her character that is too often portrayed as a negative characteristic in a woman, particularly of that era she lived in.
A short documentary created after the discovery of the passing of the legendary Jean Batten:
Every flyer who ventures across oceans to distant lands is a potential explorer; in his or her breast burns the same fire that urged the adventurers of old to set forth in their sailing-ships for foreign lands. Riding through the air on silver wings instead of sailing the seas with white wings, he must steer his own course, for the air is uncharted, and he must therefore explore for himself the strange eddies and currents of the ever-changing sky in its many moods.
To Purchase This Book Click Here: The Infinite Air by Fiona Kidman
Note: The book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher Aardvark Bureau, an imprint of Gallic Books.