Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Musings: A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains

A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains is one of the many books published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that makes me so grateful to have an e-reader.  So many of these books are hard to find now, and they are just fascinating.  And so many of them were written by women!

I picked A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains to read because I was wanted something similar to the delightful Letters of a Woman Homesteader.  I am so fascinated by adventuresome women around the turn of the century who didn't let their corsets and petticoats dictate their way of life.  I fell in love with Elinore Stewart; she was adventurous, kind and had a real gift for sharing fun and memorable stories.  Unfortunately, I did not fall in love with Isabella Bird.

Bird was born in England in 1831.  She was a sickly child, but according to Wikipedia (and based on the 200+ pages with her, I completely believe it), she was really just sick when she didn't get what she wanted, and seemed perfectly healthy when she was traveling and enjoying herself.  She took off traveling in her 20s and didn't stop for a very long time, going to the US, Canada, Scotland, Hawaii, New Zealand, East Asia and India.  She was clearly a very resourceful woman who was comfortable riding a horse, mending the only two pairs of clothing she had, traveling through deep snow on her own and putting up with pretty bare accommodations.  The book I read was focused on her travels through Colorado, where she fell completely in love with the Rocky Mountains (and, in my opinion, "Rocky Mountain" Jim Nugent, a desperado whose appearance, history and personality she described in very positive detail).

Doubtless, Isabella Bird led a very interesting life.  Unfortunately, though, that life did not transfer well to the page.  Some things were very well-written; for example, Bird can wax poetic with the best of them.  I vividly recall her detailed account of ascending Long's Peak (with her sexy one-eyed desperado Nugent for company) and the beautiful descriptions of glorious sunrises and sunsets:
Before long a carnival of color began which I can only describe as delirious, intoxicating, a hardly bearable joy, a tender anguish, an indescribable yearning, an unearthly music, rich in love and worship.
But much of the book seemed like so much summary to me.  She talked many times about how her horse slipped on ice and had tender feet.  How many miles she rode in a day.  How many mountains surrounded her.  How some areas had no trees.  How some areas had a lot of trees.  She detailed all those things to excessive detail, but didn't flesh out why she was traveling, or even where she was going, or how she passed the time.

And that touches on something else.  Isabella Bird may have been very interesting and adventurous, but she was also pretty snobby.  Elinore Stewart in Letters of a Woman Homesteader was so witty and saw the humor in so many situations, but it was clear that she respected and liked the people around her and truly cared for them.  For the most part, I felt like Isabella Bird was frowning down upon everyone she encountered from some higher moral ground and thought herself better than all of them.  She really wanted people to respect her and treat her well- she points out repeatedly in the narrative that the men she encounters always treat a woman with respect, and take their hats off to her, which is very important in her estimation.  This was a bit incongruous as Bird herself was breaking all sorts of conventions and rules.  But it was still very important that she be treated like a lady.

She describes the Native Americans she encounters as dirty, thinks Americans are really greedy and have lost sight of God, and only likes other people from England.  I am over-exaggerating, but she really does stick her nose up at so many people in the course of this book, even ones from whom she receives hospitality.  And she thinks that everyone hates the English, as she pointedly complains every time people speak against her country (even though she herself doesn't want to go home to England, either).  She finds the shortage of Anglophiles completely unforgivable, but feels so sorry for her Rocky Mountain Jim Nugent, a drunkard who killed many men but was polite to women.  Apparently, murder is forgivable but rudeness is not.

What disappointed me most in this book were the lack of conversations.  No doubt Bird met many fascinating people, but she glances over most of them and gives us her own opinion on their personalities.  We never get to hear the jokes that she shares, the insults she endures, the confessions she hears.  I wish she had spent more time talking about the people, and less time giving detailed accounts of every single day she traveled through snow.
Something that really struck me, though, was just how safe Bird always felt.  She went out in blizzards, spent the night with strangers (often disreputable ones), and never seemed to think twice about it.  The whole time, I felt certain that some man was going to grab her on some snowy outcrop and have his way with her, but it never happened.  She always felt so welcomed and taken care of and I don't think the possibility of rape or mugging or anything of the sort was at all on her mind.  As a woman, I found that absolutely amazing.  I cannot imagine even so much as walking home at night without being extremely cognizant of my surroundings and the possibility of something very bad happening to me.  But she felt completely safe the whole time, and I can't help feeling very jealous of that.  I wonder how much of the fear ingrained into girls now is societal, and in some ways a jail of our own making to keep us from doing so many fantastic acts.  It makes me sad and a little wistful.

I also now really want to visit Colorado, particularly Estes Park, the area that Bird loved the most.


  1. Hi Aarti,
    Have you read Conrad Richter's trilogy, 'The Trees', 'The Fields', 'The Town'?
    This review reminded me of it and I think you might like it. 'The Trees' is especially very beautifully written and it has a very interesting woman protagonist.

  2. Hi Nivedita- No, I haven't read that or even heard of it. Thanks for letting me know- I'll look into it!

  3. Oh no! Bird sounds very whiny and self-indulgent, and a little too much for me to handle. I have to admit that I am fascinated by these types of books, but I won't be reading this one anytime soon. I don't get on well with snobby and self-important people, and it sounds like Bird was both of these. It's a shame that she used her platform for this, because I am sure if she had written with an eye to different details, this might have been a fabulous book. Great analysis, as expected, my friend!

  4. Anonymous11/15/2011

    Great pick, you have definitely inspired me to pick this one up. I was raised in the Rockies (but in Canada) and love reading about women who explored them when it wasn't as acceptable for women to be adventuring about. I have a book called Mountaineering Women that got me hooked on stories like this.

  5. I loved what you said about murder vs. rudeness and their forgivability too funny!

    As far as living with fear - I think that women have always had to deal with that fear of being out and about unprotected and the possibility of attack. I think it's all about the individual woman's attitude of fearfulness (or in some cases naivete when it comes to feeling safe). I myself am wimpy. I live in a small town, but even though it's very safe I still don't go walking around by myself at night. But I know some women just seem to have that inner daring that keeps them from feeling so much fear.

    It reminds me of the movie "V for Vendetta" - have you seen it? There's this part where the main character, who has always been afraid, is afraid no longer. It's such a powerful moment (but I wouldn't want to go through what she did in order to have freedom from fear). :)

  6. She sounds like a fascinating woman, even if not very likeable!

  7. Anonymous6/25/2012

    Actually, I found the author to be very fair in her description of people she met; she especially didn't care for fellow Brits who loudly proclaimed their superiority to Americans. In the 1870's I believe that there could have been quite a few settlers in Colorado who were prejudiced against the British.

    I also felt her detailed descriptions of riding alone on her horse for very long stretches of time in the bitter cold (20 degrees below zero!) without seeing another soul, searching for a place to stay, reached out to me across the years. I pictured myself in the same position, and connected to her loneliness.

    Finally, as a British upper-class woman in the 1800's traveling alone, she would have been concerned with the way others treated her. Back then, a woman traveling alone was suspect, and considered "loose."

    I really enjoyed reading her book; I also read Letters of a Woman Homesteader and enjoyed that,too; I love to read books and journals by women who lived during the mid-to late 1800's in the American West.

  8. Your observations regarding Bird's writing style are correct, but I completely disagree with your judgement of that style. It is important that this work be considered in context. The book is a collection of letters written by a woman who was ahead of her time but was still influenced by the social climate of that era. Because Bird was writing to her sister, the reader should not expect a polished narrative. She did not set out to write a book. Instead, her sister and others encouraged her to publish the letters as a book later, because they thought that the body of work provided a valuable look at life on the frontier. As a resident of modern Colorado, I found it absolutely fascinating to read about life in Colorado during that time period; things have changed so much in a relatively short period of time. This includes not only cities and landscapes, but also social conventions and mores. If Bird's opinion of others seems unfair, that is because we are looking at it through the prism of today's standards. By the standards of her own time, Bird was open-minded and generous. Consider that she was a middle-aged woman who forewent the comfort of home and stability of marriage in favor of years traveling to the far reaches of the world BY HERSELF. If, as a result of the preceding review, you are on the fence about reading A Lady's Life, remember that this is a very short book. By comparison, Bird's book on Hawaii is a colossal tome. If you want lengthy details about scenery and motives, The Hawaiian Archipelago provides them by the boat-load. A Lady's Life is much more succinct, and as a result I found it easier to digest. As far as style is concerned, the book is wanting; but treat it as a snap-shot of a brief moment in time, and you will find it incredibly enlightening. And don't go to Estes Park now expecting the paradise that Bird described. Nothing remains of that Eden.


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