Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Two Women Race Around the World, Wearing Bustles

Eighty Days by Matthew Goodman
After reading Ten Days in a Madhouse by Nellie Bly last year, I became fascinated with this plucky, intrepid reporter who broke gender barriers in Victorian New York.  I was excited to see that there was a new book out about Nellie Bly's record-breaking trip around the world - and that another woman was involved in this race, too.  Eighty Days:  Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History Making Race Around the World, by Matthew Goodman, was one book I was very excited to open.

But, once opened, it took me a long time to make much progress in this one.  The book isn't inordinately long - it clocks in at 376 pages - but it was filled with so many tiny, unnecessary details.  It felt much more like a slog than it should have, considering how amazing the two women profiled were.

First, Nellie Bly, undercover reporter extraordinaire.  She got her start by sending a snarky letter in response to a newspaper editorial that extolled the virtues of women staying in their sphere, the home.  Nellie pointed out that this wasn't an option for poor women and that the writer should open his eyes to the world around him.  (Good stuff, Nellie!)  This got her a full-time job and she eventually moved to New York City, becoming an undercover reporter who brought attention to the plights of the poor and forgotten and was glamorous enough to have an on-again, off-again, super-handsome might-be boyfriend.

Then there's Elizabeth Bisland, a woman who has been mostly forgotten to history but was well-known in her time.  Often described as being a beauty (interestingly, Nellie Bly was always described as being plain, but the two women in the pictures on the cover look very similar to me), she was a southern woman whose family became destitute after the Civil War.  She got her start by publishing poems and then became literary editor of The Cosmopolitan magazine.  Bisland held literary salons and had a really awesome group of friends.


Nellie Bly worked for The World in New York and when readership went downhill, Joseph Pulitzer sent her on an around-the-world trip, hoping to beat the fictional record set by Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days.  The editor of The Cosmpolitan read about her journey in the paper and decided that he would send one of his staff on a trip going the opposite way, and so Elizabeth Bisland was made to very quickly pack some things and set off west across America on her own journey around the world.

When I started this book, I was a big fan of Nellie Bly due to aforementioned stint in a madhouse.  But now I'm not so sure.  Bly made a name for herself by bringing to life the dangers of being poor.  But when she took off on her trip around the world, she never once interacted with passengers in steerage nor did she ever try to learn more about the people in the places she was visiting.  She seems to have become more isolationist American when she was abroad than she ever was at home, and compared everything unfavorably to the United States.  She made all-encompassing (mostly negative) statements about the people everywhere she went, even though she rarely deigned to interact with them.  It was very off-putting and in the end, when she married a millionaire 40 years older than her on the fly and then made a complete mess of managing his estate when he died, it really felt like she had lost sight of herself.  She let the fame go to her head.

Bisland, on the other hand, seemed to have a much more secure head on her shoulders.  While she did not become ridiculously famous the way Bly did (because she was the runner-up), she was much more interested in learning about the other cultures she encountered, and was much more worldly in her outlook after her trip.  And, frankly, she was much more likeable in general.

Honestly, these two women were both so amazing for their time, though, that it's hard not to admire both of them.  Setting off on your own in your early 20s on a trip around the world can be frightening and lonely now, and back then when you had all those strictures of society and disapproval hovering over your head, it must have been even harder.  But they both did it, and they did it with style.  And I'm sure both of them rolled their eyes and gritted their teeth when they came back home and everyone asked them if they had found husbands or assured them that their streak of individualism wouldn't keep away the really good men. 

There were a lot of things that stood out to me in this book.  One of the main ones was the power of the press and just how much we've lost over the past hundred years or so because it's weakened.  Yes, everyone still watches the news or reads the news, but all those media channels are now so desperate for ratings that they just report vitriol or take extreme stances on everything and it's hard to know what's true and what's not.  I don't think Victorian newspapers were always concerned with facts, either, but they did bring about a lot of reform and information to the masses, and I miss that drive for scoping out corruption and reporting it and making society better by doing so.

I also miss the diversity that used to exist is the world.  I know it's still there, but more and more, culture shock is disappearing as familiar restaurants and clothes and brand names pop up all over the world.  It's hard now to go somewhere and feel that you are in a completely alien place, and I think that we're missing out on something intangible by all the globalization that's occurred.

I haven't talked much about the book, more about the two women who populate it.  The book was interesting because Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland are interesting.  But Goodman shared so many details about their trip (including a full page about some conjurer who made bangles disappear) that it was easy to feel bogged down.  It took a long time to get through this book, and I admit I skimmed towards the end.  But at least Goodman introduced me to Elizabeth Bisland, whom I may never have known otherwise.

9 comments:

  1. I read Nellie Bly's account of her trip and she seems like an excellent, plucky lady, but as you say a bit critical and isolationist (and documenting travel outside of Europe does not bring out the best in white 19th century people as I am sure you can imagine). There's a lovely part where she makes a special stop off because she will get to meet Jules Verne.

    It would be nice to learn more about Elizabeth Bisland, but this book does sound a little dull. Perhaps a better one will turn up?

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  2. Great review -- I'm a huge Nellie Bly fangirl and have this in my queue, but I might wait on it given your observations about the detailed narrative. I'm not in the mood for weighty non-fic right now.

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  3. I hadn't thought that a book about traveling the world would be so dry and filled with minutia, but it sounds like this one was. I do like the fact that you learned so much about Nellie and Elizabeth and that you were able to put them into perspective beyond the blandness of the narrative. I learned so much today! Thanks for sharing it all with me. Before reading this, I knew so little of either woman!

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  4. These sound like fascinating women but not sure the book sounds as fascinating. Too bad the author didn't do a better job but this does make me want to go off and see what other books there might be on these two!

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  5. Have you read Around the World by Matt Phelan? It's a graphic novel that features three stories about adventurers/explorers and one was Nelly Bly. It made me want to learn more about her and Elizabeth Bisland . I think perhaps I'll look for a book not quite as...hard to read (?) as this one though.

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    1. Ooh, I love the sound of Around the World! Will definitely look into it - thanks for the suggestion.

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  6. Very interesting subject matter. Too bad the execution was so-so.

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  7. As a UK reader I'd never heard of Bly or Bisland but this sounds a great subject if not perfect execution. :)

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  8. I finished writing my review for this one last night so I could finally come back and read yours. :) And I came to the same conclusion that it was broader than it needed to be. Some of the tangents were unnecessary and slowed the read down a lot. And I really came out of it as not a huge fan of Nellie Bly. Between her racism, her isolationism and her compulsive lying, it made her accomplishments less bright. On the other hand, I was prepared to not like Bisland because of her lack of qualifications and seeming lack of ambition but she came out of the experience with a much broader world view and I absolutely loved that she traveled back to Asia. It was definitely an interesting read even though it was hard going in parts.

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