Friday, August 2, 2013

A race around the world

Eighty Days, Matthew Goodman

The subtitle of this book is "Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World."  It went on my reading list as soon as I saw it on Audrey's blog.  As a student of American history, and of women in America, I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I only recently learned about Nellie Bly (from an episode of The West Wing, of all things), and her attempt in 1889 to become not just the first woman to circumnavigate the globe, but to do so in less than eighty days.  Had the book just been about her famous trip, it would have been enough to pique my interest.  But I had never heard of Elizabeth Bisland; I thought that Bly was simply racing the clock.  When I realized that there was another competitor, like Bly a journalist, a Victorian-era woman traveling alone, I was even more anxious to read it.  I waited out the long slow queue at the library and finally picked up a copy last Saturday.  By Sunday afternoon, I had my own.  This book will definitely be on my "best of 2013" list.

The magic number of 80 days comes of course from Jules Verne's novel, Around the World in Eighty Days.  The English hero, Phileas Fogg, accepts a wager that he can complete such a trip in that time.  The story of his adventures was serialized first in newspapers and then published in book form in 1873.  Almost immediately speculation arose over whether such a trip really was possible. Lots of people - men - talked about trying it.  No one expected a women would actually do it.

Matthew Goodman opens his story on November 14, 1889 - the day that Nellie Bly sailed from Hoboken, New Jersey, on the first leg of her journey.  The paper she worked for, the New York World, was counting on her trip to boost circulation, so this start was covered in a big article on the front page.  One of the many who read it was John Brisben Walker, the editor of a monthly magazine called The Cosmopolitan.  He immediately decided that the magazine should sponsor its own competitor, who would circumnavigate the globe from the opposite direction, heading west first.  He chose Elizabeth Bisland, the literary editor of the magazine.  Responding to an urgent summons, she arrived in the office at 11 AM to hear Walker's suggestion that she join the race, leaving that evening by train for San Francisco to catch a ship across the Pacific Ocean.  She tried to get out of going: she told him she had a tea party scheduled for the next day, she told him that she had nothing to wear for a trip around the world.  He refused to take no for an answer.  "At six o'clock that evening, Elizabeth Bisland was on a New York Central Railroad train bound for Chicago.  She was eight and a half hours behind Nellie Bly."  And I was completely hooked!

Goodman takes us through the following weeks, alternating between Bly and Bisland.  But first he goes back to introduce us to them in more detail, telling us how they came to journalism, a profession considered unsuitable for women (and one women were considered unsuited for as well).  Both experienced poverty as children, Bly in Pennsylvania and Bisland in Louisiana, and both supported their families by their work.  The few women hired by newspapers were usually confined to the "women's pages," covering fashion and social events.  Bly wasn't content with that narrow focus.  She made a name for herself with undercover investigative reporting, most famously by getting herself committed to the Blackwell's Island Insane Asylum, where female patients were reportedly abused (she later wrote a book about her experiences).  Bisland began her career in New Orleans, on the usual women's page, but after a few years she moved to New York, where she found work writing book reviews for newspapers and magazines.  Though she lacked Bly's rough and tumble experience, and her notoriety, she was well-established in her career when she was hired at The Cosmopolitan (the name alone suggests the gap between her work and Bly's).

Goodman's story draws on the books that Bly and Bisland later published about their trips.  As his story moves back and forth between them, he weaves in a wealth of information about the two women, their modes of transportation, where they were stopping, what they were seeing.  He neatly balances their individual experiences within the larger context that he provides.  We learn for example about the completion of the transcontinental railroad in the United States, and its impact on trade and travel, as well as the Chinese workers who built the western section, and the rabid prejudice against them that led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The ship that Bisland took from San Francisco carried Chinese emigrants returning home.  Both she and Bly had stopovers in Hong Kong. Their experiences, and their very different reactions, are fascinating, repeated on each leg of their parallel journeys.

One of the main arguments made against women even completing a trip like this is that they would be weighed down by too much luggage.  Nellie Bly countered those arguments by setting off with one single bag, a grip the size of an old-fashioned doctor's bag.  She wore a sturdy traveling dress, but she didn't even take a second. Elizabeth Bisland managed it with a steamer trunk and a valise - which allowed her to bring three dresses in addition to the one she wore.  Bisland also took books (always the first thing I pack), but Bly didn't have room.  Both packed underwear, stockings and toiletries.  The "toiletries" must have included supplies for their monthly cycles, though there is naturally no mention of this. It may not have occurred to Matthew Goodman, but of all the inconveniences they faced on such a trip, the usual rags secured with pins, which had to be washed and reused, had to have been high on the list.

I have to admit that I started this book rooting for Nellie Bly on her quest to set a record and prove women's capabilities.  Elizabeth Bisland seemed like a dilettante, a cynical attempt on her editor's part to horn in on Bly's trip.  While Bly was committed to taking only the existing means of transportation, Walker did not hesitate to pull strings and to offer financial incentives to speed Bisland's trip, for example trying to arrange ships' itineraries (including the sacrosanct mail packets) around her schedule, and that felt like cheating. (In the end, Bly's paper did some string-pulling of its own.)  I did sympathize with Bisland though, in the face of such an outlandish demand, to turn her life upside down and set out on a journey around the world, with only a few hours' notice.  As I followed her westward, I came to appreciate her more and to enjoy her company.  She was technically engaged in the race, but while Bly rushed, Bisland snatched time to savor, to observe, to appreciate.  Bly, on the other hand, developed into the worst kind of "ugly American."  She had a strongly-rooted prejudice against the British and complained constantly about them, as Goodman notes while riding on their ships and trains, traveling across their empire.  She also saw only the worst particularly in the Asian countries she visited.  Perhaps this was due to the pressure she felt to win the race, which doesn't seem to have affected Bisland as strongly.

The end of the race is not the end of Goodman's story, and the chapters that follow as just as fascinating.  He takes us through the two women's lives in the aftermath of the contest, as they went their separate ways.  I was particularly interested in the year that Bisland spent in England, living with friends she made on her voyage.  There she met Rhoda Broughton, and the two later collaborated on a novel (which was not well-received).  I love these kinds of historical and literary overlaps!

This book has already added to my TBR lists.  I've downloaded Elizabeth Bisland's account of her trip, A Flying Trip Around the World, which I found through Google Books.  I'm also looking forward to exploring her other writing. In addition, I've ordered a copy of Nellie Bly's account, though I'm less excited about reading it now.  And I decided that I need to read the book that inspired these trips in the first place, the adventures of Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days.  This seems to be my year for circumnavigating the globe, at least by book, first with the historical Ulysses Grant and then the fictional Miss Cayley, who I think would have got on very well with Elizabeth Bisland at least.


  1. This sounds like great fun to read and NO I have not ever heard of this lady either. Will see if my library has it. Love stories like this especially by women.

  2. I'm embarrassed to admit that it took Nelly and Elizabeth lest time to go around the world than it has taken me to finish this book (though it's not because of the book!) I'm glad you enjoyed it - I think it's great. Your sympathies toward the two women do change back and forth, don't they?

  3. Pam, I'm a slow traveller myself - I'd hate that kind of rushing - but it was indeed great fun to read about. I hope you can find a copy!

  4. Audrey, thanks so much for introducing me to this book! Yes, my sympathies did go back & forth - especially after the race was over.

  5. This sounds completely fascinating! I have picked it up a few times when shelving the new books at my library, but wondered if it was too dry - it doesn't sound like it. Now there is a waiting list - figures!

  6. It's definitely not dry history, Anbolyn! and I know the pain of the waiting list. I was happy turning my copy in yesterday, knowing someone else was waiting for it :)

  7. I like to leave on my travels with hand luggage only, but do tend to accumulate things en route. Books, for instance... ;-) I really like your point about the toiletries - it's such an obvious thing for me to think about, yet is so rarely mentioned in social histories.

  8. vicki, I always have to leave room in my suitcase for books - both the ones I'm taking & the ones I hope to find along the way! There is no way I'd set off, even on a race around the world, without something to read.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!