Here’s a book I thoroughly enjoyed — a terrific read, a thrilling trip, adventurous women — what more could one want! For this life-long voyager, it offered an historical version of my own round-the-world trips. You don’t have to be a traveler to get a kick out of reading about two enterprising women journalists and their historic global circumnavigation in opposite directions.
Eighty Days takes its title from Jules Verne‘s serialized novel Around the World in Eighty Days, published in book form in 1873.
But — this Eighty Days is not fiction.
FLASH Update: Nellie Bly’s route retraced 125 years later on Nellie Bly in the Sky
Eighty Days opens in mid November, 1889 when 25-year-old journalist Nellie Bly is waving farewell to chilly, wet New York City from the deck of the steamship Augusta Victoria. The book tracks her biggest story — a solo global circuit and intrepid race against time — eastward across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe and Asia. The author introduces us to Nellie Bly’s character and achievements as a pioneering investigative reporter adept at “stunt journalism“. She posed as a factory worker. She exposed baby-selling scams. She got herself locked up in an asylum for the insane for nearly two weeks by acting bizarrely so she would be incarcerated as mentally disturbed. Her reports sparked a grand jury investigation of public hospitals for women where conditions were unsanitary and cruel.
Nellie Bly was not a novice traveler. She had lived in Mexico with her mother for company, writing articles about bullfights, coffin manufacturers, political graft and cultural oddities. Proof of her travel saavy was the single small handbag she carried as luggage, now displayed in the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
Meanwhile, a competing publication sweet-talked another woman to race around the globe in the other direction, westward across the continent and the Pacific Ocean, committing her to return to New York City before Bly. Elizabeth Bisland, a gently-bred Louisianan, was an accomplished literary essayist and poet, 28 years old in 1889 when the around her world trip began a few hours after Nellie Bly sailed away.
During her years as a magazine essayist and community group leader in New Orleans she had forged a life-long friendship with the acclaimed author Lafcadio Hearn, but she hadn’t traveled beyond the southern and eastern states. In New York City, Bisland was a serious professional writer, stylish and well-dressed, the toast of the New York literary scene of the day. Photographs in the book show a pristine beauty. She traveled with several trunks filled with clothes and accessories for the climate changes anticipated during nearly three months at sea and on the road.
Matthew Goodman does a brilliant job of explaining the travel infrastructure of the 1890s — grand hotels, steamships, comfortable railway carriages in the USA and the rudimentary, poorly heated rail cars in Europe and beyond. The British Empire made such a journey possible with its tightly scheduled steamships moving mail, people and supplies to the colonies with refueling stops strung around the world. At that time, the sun never set on the British empire.
As any true traveler knows, the people in a place show the real story. Goodman explores the city streets, ports, lodgings, restaurants and markets, writing historically accurate scenes of faraway places. Prejudice, injustice and the downtrodden lives of the world’s workers are exposed. Too many travel narratives shy away from tough realities, presenting a distorted rosy view of places tourists pass through insulated by money and tour guides. At sea, headed for China, Bisland writes about the human cargo of Chinese railroad workers forced out of the USA some of them ill and half-dead. Bly made a point of going ashore whenever possible to poke around street markets, ride in human-powered pedicabs or watch port operations and refueling.
Thanks to the British Empire, English was spoken just about everywhere the women put ashore as well as at the telegraph stations . Logistics were complicated to arrange without telephones, mobile phones or online travel sites. For me, an attractive feature of the book is following their route on the maps, noting transport connections and wondering if any of those elegant old hotels remain. I’ve had the pleasure of staying in one or two very vintage hotels in Asia, but renovations might be overly elaborate and erase historical character.
Still, their journeys were not luxury tours hopping from one British outpost to another. Annoyances ranged from extreme temperatures, weather delays, dramatic storms at sea, fickle health, loneliness, intruding gawkers and local reporters in search of a story. Nellie reinforced her pre-existing negative opinion of the snobby Brits and Elizabeth learned that she liked to travel, despite a tipsy stomach.
Elizabeth Bisland and Nellie Bly used telegraph messages to communicate their progress which the newspapers used to pump reader interest and increase circulation. One paper ran a contest with a free trip for the winner who could guess Bly’s completion date. It was a neck-to-neck race in opposite directions and I won’t spoil the suspense unfolding during their around-the-world journeys by spilling the beans about the final days and the unusual trajectory of their lives afterwards.
Eighty Days was released in paperback on March 11, 2014. It’s a great book for book club discussion groups too. Read my interview with Matthew Goodman at AdventureTravelWriter.org
- Ballantine Books
- ISBN: 978-0-345-52727 eBook: 978-0-804-17644-6
- Paperback edition, 2014. $16.00
- Includes: Index, Bibliography, Photographs, Maps and a guide for reading groups
Some readers may remember the 1956 Technicolor film with David Niven in the title role and a legacy of five Academy Awards. The film Around the World in Eighty Days was produced by Elizabeth Taylor’s beloved husband Mike Todd, who died in an aircraft accident 18 months later.