Eighty Days

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November 14, 1889: The steamship Augusta Victoria lies in the harbor off Hoboken, New Jersey.  Soon, it will be en route to Europe, landing in Southampton, England.  Aboard is a young woman jauntily dressed in blue broadcloth, a black and white checked ulster, and a fore-and-aft cap of the kind worn by Sherlock Holmes.  That young woman is the intrepid reporter Nellie Bly, who has already gone undercover to expose shocking abuse at the Blackwell’s Island insane asylum and toppled the “Lobby King” of Albany, and she’s bound for her biggest adventure to date: a quest to circumvent the globe, by steamship and train, in less than the 80 days made famous by Jules Verne’s fictional hero Phileas Fogg.

That same day, without the fanfare attending Bly’s departure, another young woman will set off to do the same thing.  She is Elizabeth Bisland, raised on a shabby yet genteel Southern plantation, who has herself risen to a successful journalism career.  Bisland is quiet and unassuming (which Bly certainly is not), a lover of books and literature, writer of the “In the Library” column for The Cosmopolitan magazine.  She chugs west by train, since her editor believes that a western route will avoid the meteorological pitfalls he expects Bly to encounter on her Eastern route, and hopes to arrive back in New York City ahead of Bly.

The women’s “race” around the world soon captivates the attention of the entire country, thanks in large part to the skillful marketing done by Bly’s editors at The World newspaper.  And although the race took place almost 125 years ago, I found it just as thrilling.  I flipped pages at a speed worthy of Bly and Bisland, as I was just so anxious to find out who “won” (although Bly refused to acknowledge Bisland as a competitor, claiming to only be racing against Time, and Bisland stuck to her own non-competitive descriptions of the trip as a “journey” rather than a “race”).  I tried to remain neutral, but by about halfway through the book I found myself silently rooting for one particular competitor over the other.

I won’t tell you who won – that’d spoil the fun of reading the book, which you certainly should – but I’ll tell you this: in my opinion, regardless of who traveled faster, Elizabeth Bisland traveled better.  She dealt with delays in a more cheerful, adaptive fashion than Bly, she was more open-minded and more willing to experience the exotic, and although she never wanted to go on the trip in the first place – it was Bly’s idea, and Bisland’s editors strong-armed her into making it a race – she seemed to have a far more positive attitude throughout her travels.  Bly’s chapters were often devoted to describing her boredom, her attitude of American superiority, or the social injustices she didn’t care to report (despite her fame as a muckraker), while Bisland’s chapters focused instead on almost poetic descriptions of the fascinating sights which enthralled the traveler as she made her way from port to port.  I loved following Bisland through Japan and Hong Kong, and I felt a special kinship with her towards the end of her journey, when she entered her beloved England for the first time:

It was a landscape she felt she already knew from books; riding through it she was not learning but remembering.  The land seemed to swarm with phantoms from history, poems, stories.  They tramped across the fields, peered over the hedges, looked out from every window; she could hear the clang of their armor, their horses’ hoofbeats, their voices ringing out a call of welcome in the frosty winter air.

That’s pretty much how I felt the first time I visited England (although I’ve been there in September and October, respectively, and never in the winter – brrr).  Traveling at breakneck speed, jumping from ship to ship or train to train, isn’t my idea of a good way to see the world, but Bisland made the most of it, squeezing in visits to temples and ancient monuments wherever she could, and enjoying her quiet moments at sea with a book in her lap the rest of the time.  She was open and receptive to other cultures and she truly seemed to appreciate the experience, rather unlike Bly – who was the one who wanted to make the trip in the first place.  (Not that I’m completely down on Nellie Bly.  I loved the description of her first experience with curry and her tart rejections of various suitors aboard ship.  I just wish she was a little less “rah-rah-America!” about the whole experience.)  No surprise here – Elizabeth Bisland is the one who ends up making more trips overseas, over the course of her life.

Eighty Days was by turns charming, fascinating, educational and thrilling.  As I read, I found myself wishing I could travel alongside Elizabeth Bisland – other than between the pages of a book, that is – and ruminating on the current state of the world, where this kind of trip would be met with shrugs, most likely.  That strikes me as sad.  I’d like to see more daring, more adventure, in the world today.  We need more Nellie Blys and Elizabeth Bislands.  But in the meantime, at least we have Eighty Days.  Highly recommended.

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World, by Matthew Goodman: Buy the book here (not an affiliate link) or support your local indie bookstore.


5 thoughts on “EIGHTY DAYS

  1. I loved this book too, as you know. So fascinating and so much fun. (Also fun to tweet with you about it en route!)

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