Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History – Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman is a tale of two extraordinary women. One was a scrappy, sensational, investigative reporter. The other was a gentile, demure, literary reviewer. Both were ground-breaking travelers and writers. These two women actually did what Jules Verne only dreamed. They traveled around the world in less than 80 days.
Today that doesn’t sound like such a big deal. Depending on the route, a traveler could make it around the world in 80 hours! But these women did it in 1889 at the height of the Victorian era. They left within 24 hours of one another, in opposite directions and each traveled unaccompanied. Using trains, carriages, Ships, and Rickshaws, Nellie Bly made the trip in 72 days, Elizabeth Bisland in 76 days. Both beat the imaginary record of the character Phileas Fogg of Jules Verne’s famous story Around the Wold in 80 Days published in 1873.
Nellie was already famous for pretending to be mentally ill and getting herself committed to an insane asylum to report on the shocking conditions there. After subjecting herself to Ten Days in a Madhouse you would think a trip around the world in 80 days would be nothing. But when she proposed the idea to her editor he was concerned about sending a woman alone abroad and proposed that perhaps a male reporter should be dispatched instead. Nellie’s famous reply was,”very well. Start the man and I”ll start the same day for some other newspaper and I”ll beat him!”
When she did set sail across the atlantic, the editor of a competing newspaper heard about the endeavor and decided Nellie should indeed have some competition. He sent his literary reporter, Elizabeth Bisland around the world in the opposite direction with instructions to beat Nellie Bly. Elizabeth was a bit more reluctant. She had less than 24 hours to prepare if she was going to catch the train to San Francisco. As much as Nellie was known for her courage and audacity, Elizabeth was known for her grace and refinement. A reporter of the San Francisco chronicle wrote an article about her. “She doesn’t look like a very daring creature, this little woman with gentle voice… but she is going around the world in 75 days, and she’s going alone. If this thing can possibly be accomplished she is the very one to do it. It is always these delicate well-bred women who have unheard of endurance and wonderful pluck.”
The story of these two intrepid women unfolds as a tale of contrasts but these very different women still held a lot in common. I found myself identifying with first one and then the other. Though we know from the beginning which lady ultimately “won” the race, the story is less about the destination than it is about their respective journeys. Just as in life, it’s not about reaching the goal, it’s about the paths traveled. Both of these women walked the road of disadvantage and deprivation. Both courageously made their way in life with nothing but their courage and their pens. And both women had a heart for helping the needy and fighting social injustice. I can’t help but imagine an alternate reality in which they traveled together.
As I prepare to embark on my own journey abroad, I find myself thinking of the spirit of adventurous women travelers. I wonder about the other women who will be on the WanderTour to Vietnam and Cambodia with me later this month. Chances are we will all be very different women. All of us from different backgrounds, different experiences and likely we will all be looking for different things from our journey. But we will also have much in common. I look forward to meeting the Nellie Blys and the Elizabeth Bislands among them. How lovely to be traveling in the same direction with the opportunity to become friends.
Read ~ Write ~ Wander