It is easy, without historical context, to mistake our own travels – and the documentation thereof – as some kind of bold act. We think ourselves grand for going around the world and we think our stories worthy of sharing merely because we can. But 150 years ago, this was just not the case. Travel was a big deal, women traveling an even bigger deal and women traveling solo, if not quite unheard of, certainly a long way from standard practice.
It was the Victorian age. Men – mostly men – traveled by steamship and rail. As for documenting said travels, that was the territory of men as well. Women were as unwelcome in the newsroom as they were in the pages those newsrooms produced, relegated to fashion and housekeeping and maybe the arts.
In to this landscape two bold women took it upon themselves to race one another around the world. One, an elegant and cultured arts writer – Elizabeth Bisland – the other, a scrappy go getter news hound in a checkered jacket – Nellie Bly.
“Eighty Days” is the story of their adventure not just to succeed as great travelers, but to become well known and respected journalists as well. Off they go, propelled by their own will, two very different women on mirrored journeys. Nellie Bly invented the trip; Elizabeth Bisland was convinced to participate. Ms. Bisland packed for propriety and style, Ms. Bly anticipated the carry-on only traveler by over a century by insisting on taking nothing more than she could manage herself, lest she be delayed while waiting for her luggage.
They were both determined, bold, articulate and so brave. Looking back through history only magnifies the unusual nature of their travels.
The book is a terrific read, full of compelling characters – newspaper men, suitors, handsome sailors, exotic foreigners, missed communication, hunger and frustration – in short, all the stuff that makes up a good travel story. And it’s impossible not to admire these exceptional women, racing against time and against the standards of the day. Matthew Goodmans brings a heroic Nellie Bly to life in the first pages and Elizabeth Bisland’s grace and unexpected nerve are made real next. It’s impossible to decide whom you want to win. And finally, when one of the women does win, it doesn’t matter – the adventure has been completely worth it.