Of all the icons in New Zealand history, aviator Jean Batten is possibly the most enigmatic. What we do know is that she was born in 1909 in Rotorua; we know where she grew up and went to school, and we know how she came to be one of the nineteenth century’s most daring and courageous women who determinedly broke the women’s flying record for a solo flight from England to Australia in 1934, and who set a world record for the first ever flight from England to New Zealand in 1936. We also know that she died in 1982 in Spain, unrecognised and buried in an anonymous grave, and that the world – including friends and family – did not become aware of her death until four years later, in 1987.
Although much-examined, Jean Batten’s life and personality has so far tended to be interpreted in some fairly shallow and predictable ways, including the emphasis on Jean’s relationship with men, where according to sites such as New Zealand History net. “Raising money by taking advantage of her relationships with men was a theme that continued throughout her flying career”, and where a great deal of attention was paid to her glamorous looks and outfits.
Dame Fiona Kidman – New Zealand novelist, poet, scriptwriter and short story author – baulks at this popular interpretation of Jean Batten in her latest novel The Infinite Air, where she has re-imagined just how Jean got from her small-town beginnings in Rotorua, through a tempestuous family situation that led to the breakup of Jean’s parents, all the way to England, where despite real poverty and hardship Jean – aided and supported by her resourceful mother Nellie –managed to enroll in flying school, and then went on to create some of the most exciting flying-records of her time. In Kidman’s version of Jean Batten’s life the stereotypical explanation for why a woman like Jean might have been triumphant – i.e. because she was relying on men – is shown up for what it really is: a simplistic, sexist and outdated assumption about successful women.
Kidman, who is known for her skillful re-workings of New Zealand history, gives this novel a firm grounding based on vast historical research of Jean and her time. For someone like myself – who knew very little about Batten apart from that she was a famous pilot and that her airplane, the silver “Percival Gull” has forever hovered over the arrivals area at Auckland airport – The Infinite Air is full of surprises and compelling developments. Kidman’s description of Jean’s record-breaking flights in particular are simply fascinating, with much attention given to describing the small details that go into such a massive undertaking, thereby imbuing the narrative with a tangible sense of flying: you can feel the wind whipping around your own ears, the sand of a desert sandstorm pelting into your eyes, or the rain cascading down on your face during the descriptions of these legendary flights.
The story abounds with famous places and faces from history – from London to Paris, to Rome and Mallorca; from Freda Stark (another legendary New Zealand woman), to Winston Churchill, to Greta Garbo and Ian Fleming. Jean’s associations range far, and there is real richness in the depiction of those pre-Word War 2 European days, and New Zealand’s place within the “British empire”.
While Fiona Kidman depicts the relationship between Jean Batten and her mother Nellie – who is shown as an inventive, creative and ambitious women, whose support of Jean at times walks the thin line between wanting the best for your child and living vicariously through them – with real warmth and compassion. However, if Kidman was aiming to dispel the silences around Jean Batten herself – giving the reader emotional access to what makes this character tick – then this novel stays shy of such an aim by constantly evading the point of real closeness to the character of Jean. While there are skilful and plausible character developments that “explain” Jean Batten and the choices she makes at various times in her life, there is also the sense that the character – much like the real-life Jean Batten – is holding herself somewhat aloof from the narrative. The reader seemingly is kept at arms-length, and so while the character of Jean Batten is indeed both fascinating and tragic, the poignancy of her story is experienced by the reader from a definite outsider’s view. And so, just like Jean Batten’s motto that states that “I can’t cry – I am British,” the reader feels the immensity of her story, but is unlikely to be immediately moved by it.
Instead, The Infinite Air is steadfast, as a well-researched and well-interpreted, well-written caper through the ups and downs of the mysterious Jean Batten’s iconic life, which will keep the reader wondering about Jean Batten, long after the last page has been turned.