by Amelia Gordon
Have you heard of Jean Batten? Neither had I and in fact, a first thought that she was a fictional character, but indeed she is not. Jean Batten, New Zealander, was one of the most famous aviators of her age, the late 1920’s and 1930’s. She became internationally famous by taking a number of record-breaking solo flights across the world. It was she who in 1936 made the first-ever solo flight from England to New Zealand. Her major record setting solo flights, in the flimsy planes of the day were
- 1934 – England – Australia (women’s record) 10,500 miles in 14 days 22 hours 30 minutes, breaking Amy Johnson’s record by over four days.
- 1935 – Australia – England in 17 days 15 hours. First woman ever to make a return flight.
- 1935 – England – Brazil: 5000 miles in 61 hours 15 minutes, setting world record for any type of aeroplane. Also fastest crossing South Atlantic Ocean, 13¼ hours, and first woman to make England – South America flight.
- 1936 – England – New Zealand. World record for any type. 14,224 miles in 11 days 45 minutes total elapsed time, including 2½ days in Sydney.
In this fascinating book, Dame Fiona Kidman, the famous New Zealand novelist, takes on the life of Jean Batten in a piece of historical fiction. And Jean is a fascinating subject. By all accounts, Ms. Batten was a brilliant pianist and dancer and could have made a career of either of these, but she wanted only to fly. With the help of her dedicated mother, she traveled from New Zealand to England and trained as a pilot at the prestigious Stag’s Landing, outside London. She did all this with very little or no money and endured penury in the pursuit of her dream. She acquired training and two planes from men who helped her out and as a result of this, she acquired a reputation as a bit of a gold digger, but Fiona Kidman takes a different view. The offers to help her were sincerely made and the men got their money’s worth, although one pursued her for years for repayment of his debt (he had given her money in the hope and expectation, unfounded, that she would marry him). As a result of her flights, she was showered with honours and entered high society. But she died in obscurity in Majorca in 1983 and through a bureaucratic error in her name, she was not buried under the name Batten and it took five years for her family to discover her death.
Ms. Kidman feels a personal connection to Jean Batten. She lived for a number of years in the town of Rotorua, New Zealand on the North Island where Jean Batten was raised. Ms. Kidman, who is a fine writer, makes Jean and her era come alive and how wonderful to discover this remarkable woman. As is the case in well written historical fiction, it brings the intimacy of a novel to an historical event. And shame on us who were not aware of this brave and enterprising woman.