Thursday, January 9, 2014

Around the world in 76 days

In Seven Stages: A Flying Trip Around the World, Elizabeth Bisland

One of my favorite books from last year was Matthew Goodman's Eighty Days, an account of the race around the world between Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland in 1889.  I was only a few pages into it when I learned from the notes that both women later wrote their own books about the race.  I quickly downloaded an e-book edition of each, but I also found that they are in print and ordered copies as well.  Since I finished Goodman's book sympathizing with Elizabeth Bisland, who [spoiler alert] lost the race, I decided to read her account first.

Bisland published her book in 1891, a year after Nellie Bly's (thus coming second again).  It is a short book, only 101 pages, divided into eight sections, the "stages" of the title.  (I don't know why she didn't count the last stage, perhaps because that's when she lost the race.)  It opens on a peaceful November morning in New York City, in 1889.  Bisland had breakfast in bed, reading her mail, which included acceptances for a tea party she was holding in two days, and a notice from her tailor about a fitting for a new gown.  She was surprised to receive a summons to the office of her boss, the editor of The Cosmopolitan, where she was the literary editor.  When she arrived, she was stunned at his proposal that she leave that day, to travel literally around the world, "endeavoring to complete the journey in some absurdly inadequate space of time."  It took him an hour to convince her to make the attempt, and by 6 PM she was on a train.  Nellie Bly had sailed that morning, heading east.  Bisland took the opposite direction, west across the United States to San Francisco. From there she sailed across the Pacific and then the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal and across the Mediterranean to Italy, crossing Europe by train and then the Channel by boat, finally taking ship from Ireland for New York.

For such a short book, this left me with very contradictory feelings.  On the positive side, Elizabeth Bisland seems to have really enjoyed most of her travels.  Once she was launched on her trip, she never mentioned the race again until almost the end.  Of course her contemporary readers would have known all the circumstances, including the outcome of the race.  But Bisland might almost have been traveling just for pleasure. There is no sense of hurry or urgency, except in the last stage.  She frequently had to wait for ships to arrive or depart, and she spent the time happily wandering around, exploring and observing, and shopping whenever she got the chance.  She fell in love with Japan, returning later in life to live there.  She seems to have gotten along well with her fellow travelers, often setting off on excursions with them, but she also had an eye for their absurdities.  At a New Year's Eve ball in Ceylon, she noted an American woman from Texas, "in a fearful and wonderful costume, that casts a slight but comprehensive glance at the modes of three centuries and muddles them all," who "is tossing her powdered head and flirting shrilly..."

In the final stage of the journey, Bisland arrived in Paris by train.  There she was met by an agent of Thomas Cook's, who told her that the ship she was hoping to catch at Le Havre had sailed without her.  Later she discovered that the ship had in fact waited for her, delaying as long as possible.  Had she caught the ship, she might have won the race.  "The cause of this false information was never satisfactorily ascertained," she wrote. "It, however, succeeded in lengthening the voyage four days" - and those four days were crucial.  I did admire how Bisland simply carried on, crossing the Channel to Britain and across to Ireland, to catch a ship out of Cork.  The voyage to New York was a nightmare of storms and mountainous seas, which Bisland stoically endured.

I enjoyed the later stages of the book more than the early ones.  Each stage is fairly brief, since despite the leisurely air Bisland was traveling as quickly as possible.  She took pains to describe the places and the people she encountered, but she was writing from at most two or three days of observation.  Particularly in her scenic descriptions, her prose tended toward the purple (the ellipses are hers):
As I passed in my swift circle about the great ball plunging along its planetary paths, many mighty and glorious visions of the coming and passing of light were revealed to me; but none more fair than this with that radiance of youth, whose vast, sweet nature-shadow and simulacrum the dawning is . . . Eternally renewed, though all ages .. still, with the white peace of innocence .. rosy with promise and potentialities, gilding all the commmonplaceness of the landscape with golden glamours and fantasies...

A little of that went a long way.  But I found her descriptions of people more troubling.  Crossing into California, she noted "the first outer edges of that yellow wave from China which has broken upon the Pacific coasts."  She didn't actually use the term "Yellow Peril," but she might just as well have.  I had to keep reminding myself that her anti-Chinese attitude was completely (in Barb's marvelous term) "era acceptable."  Reading this, I was struck again by Louisa May Alcott's audacity in including a Chinese character in her "Campbell" books, the young merchant Fun See, who may be rather a figure of fun, but at the end of Rose in Bloom he is about to marry into a blue-blooded Boston family.  Bisland did approve of the Japanese, however, though she labeled them "still children" and "hopelessly immodest, with the unconscious shamelessness of babies...."  She also admired the Sikhs that she met first in Hong Kong, though she was more impressed with the British, who had brought them to serve the Empire.

As I said, this book left me with very mixed feelings.  I admired Elizabeth Bisland's courage in agreeing to the race, and her stoic endurance of defeat under the worst of conditions.  But I felt there was no depth to her account.  She was recording impressions and observations from only the briefest of encounters, so it feels of little value as a travelogue.  On the other hand, it doesn't really work as an account of the race, because she hardly seems to be in the race at all.  I don't quite know what to make of it, and having read it I'm not sure I need to keep it.  Though I generally prefer the original source, in this case I think Matthew Goodman's is the better book.


  1. It obviously could have been such a better book. Do you know if she was sending these 'impressions' back to her magazine as she went -- maybe in the book she's just cut-and-pasting her reports and failing at over-all narrative. Hmmm.

  2. I found myself rooting for her at times, and at other times not -- but both women were so brave, in certain ways. How fun to read more about her, though! Eighty Days was definitely the kind of book that made me want to do this.

  3. vicki, Goodman's book mentions "dispatches" being sent back, but in Bisland's case that seems to have been brief telegrams. I did wonder if she was keeping some kind of travel diary - but if so, she never mentioned it.

    Audrey, I sympathized with her so much at the start & at the end. I still can't imagine being harangued into leaving on a trip like that on such short notice!

  4. How disappointing! I wonder what readers at the time thought of the book?
    I couldn't imagine doing what she did - I don't know if I could have been talked into it, though it would be tempting.

  5. Anbolyn, I am such a nervous traveler that I don't think I could have done it - not after just an hour's persuasion - though I do wonder how much pressure she felt as an employee to agree.


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!