Since 1971, I’ve experienced many long distance road trips across and into the three countries of North America. Does it take special stamina to travel on the the vast road and rail networks of Canada, Mexico and the United States of America? After reading American Day by Day, it sounds like travel by train or bus in the U.S. is more difficult now. Passenger rail systems in the U.S. and Mexico have been gutted.
A few dozen months ago, in a New York Times interview, Paul Theroux mentioned several celebrity authors who cruised the blue highways of the U.S.A. — Steinbeck, Nabokov, Scott and Zelda — but overlooked the North American travels of French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir.
The European feminist landed at LaGuardia Airport in January, 1947 and during four months, criss-crossed the USA by train, car and bus. Her goal was to meet American students, especially women.
America Day by Day is her fascinating account of meetings with students at elite US colleges. She was keen to sit down with young women at Vassar, Radcliffe, Berkeley, and the other top universities. Photos of the sleek de Beauvoir in conversation with college gals swathed in rumpled ankle-length flared skirts and thickly rolled white socks offers a superficial window to the sartorial differences of the French grande dame and care-free students.
There were other gaps. She thought American college students were uninformed, quite innocent of global politics, the impact of WWII, or the realities of life. The students she met were intellectually and politically tame, but they had similar taste in music and entertainment. For diversion, with students and literary friends, she would hunt for city jazz clubs and bars where she could talk to African-Americans.
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 fromJules Verne‘s serialized novelAround the World in Eighty Days, published in book form in 1873.
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
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 wasproduced by Elizabeth Taylor’s beloved husband Mike Todd, who died in an aircraft accident 18 months later.
Who was Louise Colet? Close friend, confident and lover of one of France’s greatest novelists — Gustave Flaubert. But long before she met Flaubert, she was a highly productive poet and essayist, a feminist dedicated to fighting for equal rights for women and honored by the Académie Française. She is usually described in the context of her friendship with Gustave Flaubert and billed as his muse. Yet, it is important to remember that when the writers met, she was the celebrated one, a 36 year old self-supporting poet noticed by the Académie, while he was an unpublished 24 year old aspiring novelist.
Louise Colet developed into a scathing political satirist, dedicated to supporting the mid – 19th century drive for liberty and justice. Decades after the American and French Revolutions which certainly jolted the aristocratic land-owning class, representative governance and human legal equality were still a distant dream for most people. The “trickle down” factors of economic equity, universal suffrage and political liberty were still being hammered out in North America and Europe. The idea that human rights and political equality and legal independence applied to women was hardly a view shared by men of the era. In this time period the people of many European countries pushed for democracy, labor and voting rights, legal equity and individual liberty. And so were Americans seeking civil justice, an end to slavery, voting rights for women and poor people who were excluded from participating in elections.
To follow the footsteps of Louise Colet, go to Provence, to Mouriès, the village near Servanes. The Hostellerie de Servanes is the ancestral estate where Louise Révoil grew up. Born in Aix-en-Provence, east of Servanes, Louise’s maternal family were local gentry with generations serving in the Parliament of Provence. Her father, from the merchant class, was head of the local postal system. She learned quite naturally to align herself with the people’s causes and in strictly divided class-conscious Aix, Louise’s aristocrat mother directed her family to walk on the side of the promenade for ordinary people rather than the elite side of the Cours Mirabeau, the “see and be scene” promenade in Aix, even though they were certainly entitled to walk with the local aristocracy. The Fonds Louise Colet, her papers and other archival material from Louise Colet ‘s life and work, is housed in the Médiathèque Ceccano section of the Bibliotheque Municipale d’Avignon.
The Musée Calvet in Avignon preserves Colet memorabilia, according to the acknowledgements in du Plessix Gray’s book, but I was not able to successfully search for items related to Louise Colet using the search function on the museum website. It’s likely material related to Louise Colet would be in a museum archive or library, rather than part of the collection on view digitally.
During her years in Paris, Colet lived in several different apartments, as might be expected for a single mother supporting herself with free-lance writing and literary stipends from the government. Louise Colet lived at 21 rue de Sèvres during the time she hosted her own literary salon, then very much in vogue. This apartment was not far from L’Abbaye aux Bois where Madame Récamier conducted her famous artistic and philosophical discussions until 1849. Colet had a falling out with her friend over the usual miscommunications and misunderstandings. Colet also lived at 21 rue Neuve Fontaine Saint-Georges (rue Fromentin). It was in this lodging in Montmartre where she decided to separate in 1842 after living briefly with her spouse, the musician Hippolyte Colet.
Louise Colet died March 8, 1876 in her daughter’s apartment, rue des Ecoles in Paris, although some books report that she died in a small hotel on that street. During the previous summer in Paris, Colet’s letters of the period were written from the Hotel d’ Angleterre, Rue Jacob and the Hotel du Palais-Royal, Rue de Rivoli. Contrary to her wishes, she was buried with Catholic Church ceremonial pomp that she despised, in daughter Henriette Colet Bissieu’s (her husband)’s family plot in the municipal cemetery in Verneuil, Normandy. The Bissieu family estate was named “Fryleuse” and is located in or near Verneuil. It is likely that the town “Verneuil” refers to Verneuil-sur-Avre which is in Normandy.
Beyond her writing, fired-up feminist rhetoric and long friendship with Gustave Flaubert, Louise Colet took on the Vatican and launched a public relations campaign on behalf of the mid-19th century freedom fighters Garibaldi and Cavour.
During her months in Italy, Louise Colet followed the footsteps of writers she admired, frequenting Caffe Florian in Piazza San Marco, Venice and searching for the exact rooms in the Hotel Nani (later, the Hotel Danieli) where writer George Sand and her lover Alfred Musset lived and worked decades earlier in 1833-1834.
But Colet’s main mission was to shine a light on the efforts of Cavour and Garibaldi to create a unified Italy. Their efforts to unify the fiefdoms and city-states of the Italian peninsula challenged the temporal power of the Vatican. Papal States scattered throughout the peninsula we now call Italy were gradually being brought under the unifying rule of Victor Emanuel; democratic government would follow unification. Colet used her considerable literary fame to seek meetings with key members of the Vatican government.
Francine du Plessix Gray writes:
“In February of 1861, after visits to Sicily that inspired many more pages of art history, Louise Colet left Naples for Rome. Victor Emmanuel had vastly diminished the Papal States the previous autumn when he occupied the Marches and Umbria, as Garibaldi had wished to do. The papal territory was reduced to the city of Rome, where the entrenched conservative factions had grown more bitter. The city was rife with secret police that kept watch on antipapist elements; one of its targets, in the first months of 1861, was Louise Colet. As soon as she had settled at the Hôtel Inghilterra – a lovely hostelry still standing today on the Via Bocca del Leone, two blocks from the Spanish Steps – she was warned by one of her compatriots, a bookstore owner, that she was under police surveillance.
The warning left her undaunted She was determined to remain in Rome = whose antiquities thrilled her as its religious artifacts horrified her = to continue her campaign against the Catholic clergy, which she considered to be the principal enemy of human progress.
Louise’s anticlericalism was fanned by a pope who was one of the more repressive Catholic leaders of the post-Reformation era and whose pontificate was the longest in the history of the papacy (1846 – 1878). Although he had begun as a fairly liberal reformist, Pius IX became an arch conservative in the 1850s, when Cavour attempted to limit his temporal power. He militantly opposed every goal of the Risorgimento, and his reign was defined by two of the most regressive encyclicals of papal history, those that set forth the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and the doctrine of Papal Infallibility.
When she arrived in Rome, Louise immediately set off to visit the Vatican, where she assisted at a Mass officiated by Pius IX in the Sistine Chapel. She describes the obese little Pope, his thick head doddering over a swollen neck, his muddy eyes and weak lips, his blotched red face and powdered hair, the archaic pomp with which his chair is carried into the church by fourteen papal guards. She considered the basilica of Saint Peter a site “of glacial pomp … totally devoid of any mysticism or mystery.” With the exception of the Pietà of Michelangelo, who “would have been a far greater artist if he had fawned less upon illiterate pontiffs,” the basilica’s “overabundance of riches” was a “a monument to hypocrisy … catering to the taste of parvenus and bankers.”
Louise was particularly disgusted with the opulent tomb of Queen Christina of Sweden – “a ruler more pagan in her mores than those of pre-Christian times” – whose recently published letters had revealed her to be “a thief, a violent, insolent and debauched strumpet.” In the middle of Saint Peter’s, Louise shouted, “I protest this sanctification of Christina of Sweden! As a saint,as one of the truly just, I far prefer Garibaldi!” Her outburst terrified a priest, who took to his heels and rushed back into the depths of the basilica.
Later that month, she wrote a burlesque of a Holy Week Mass at Saint Peter’s, which re-created the Last Supper: The Holy Father himself served food to the thirteen beggars who were seated at the table as stand-ins for Christ and his apostles. At the end of the liturgy, a few seconds after the Pope had left the church, a group of fat monks rushed to the altar, chased out the beggars, and stuffed the food and wine into large baskets for their own use (Louise’s description of Rome’s decadent religious mores occasionally strain the imagination).
Visiting the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Louise was prompted to make her own profession of faith, in which she revels a nonsectarian piety. She was, in fact, a Diest: She believed in a Supreme Being but maintained that the truths of this “Implacable Unknown” could not be incarnated in any temporal sect or power. Her credo was a blend of the ideologies that had influenced her since youth – her maternal grandfather’s Voltarian skepticism, Victor Cousin’s eclectic mysticism, Alfred de Vigny’s Stoicism, Victor Hugo’s catchall pantheism.
“Although I long ago left the Catholic faith [she wrote in the fourth and final volume of L’Italie des Italiens’, I enjoy meditating whenever I can in a great empty basilica. I do not feel as much communion with infinity there as I do when gazing on a beautiful starry night or the immensity of the ocean; but I cannot enter into one of these temples which a succession of religious sects erected to their gods without feeling a sorrowful compassion concerning our finitude.
… In our time the human soul is stifled by Catholicism, an antihuman doctrine whose architects suppressed all air and light … Liberty, Justice, Charity, Science, and Chastity have been no more than ringing words in the mouthpiece of the Church. … and at this very hour, the forces of liberty and justice shout out against the Church through all the voices of the Italian fatherland: “Why do you deny our liberation?” ”
These are the opinions with which Louise assaulted Cardinal Antonelli, Prime Minister of the Papal States, one of the Church’s highest-ranking prelates, when she cornered him at the Vatican in an attempt to obtain an audience with the Pope. It was a few days before her return to France, and Louise had a grand purpose in desiring to talk with the Holy Father. She wished to convert Pius IX to the cause of Italian liberation, to the side of Garibaldi and Cavour!
Sitting so close to her that his frock touched her dress, the cardinal, who wore immense rings of square-cut emeralds, addressed Louise as “cara mia” and heard her out but was not in the least swayed. “The Church,” he told her, “cannot recognize the people’s novel claim to emancipation, which of course is no more than the right to rape and murder. The meaningless concepts of ‘patriotism,’ ‘liberty,’ or ‘universal suffrage’ can only be brought about by violence.” Nor did the prelate rush to get Louise an audience with Pius. She had given him three days to arrange the meeting, and the cardinal explained that the Holy Father did not accept ultimatums. Thus were we deprived of a colorful episode – Louise Colet preaching revolution to the most reactionary Pope of modern times.
Louise left Rome for Paris in the spring of 1861, after a year and eight months in Italy. She would soon grieve over Camillo Cavour, who died suddenly, at fifty-one, a few weeks after she returned to France. But the revolutionary goals Cavour pursued had been fulfilled. All of the Italian peninsula, with the exclusion of Rome, had voted to be annexed to Victor Emmanuel’s kingdom. In March, at a parliamentary session in Turin, Victor Emmanuel II proclaimed the birth of a united kingdom of Italy.
The venom in Louise’s pen, and the biting social satire that Flaubert considered to be her greatest literary talent, increased in her later years. “Please accept the assurance of my most perfect disdain,” she signed letters to some of her antagonists.
Source: Gray, Francine du Plessix. (1994) Rage & Fire : A Life of Louise Colet. New York: Simon & Schuster, pp 307-310
Jennifer Monahan has written an engaging account of an extended trip around Australia.
Subtitled “Discovering the Island Continent of Australia” the book offers practical advice for first time travelers in Australia. From my own experience in Australia, I agree with Jennifer Monahan that you need more than the typical two weeks for a journey Down Under.
Yes, the flight from nearly everywhere else, except New Zealand or Indonesia, is monumental . Distance is tyranny in Australia — everything is a long way, even when it’s just over there.
I asked the author about her favorite aspect of Australia. She responded:
“When I talk about my two months in Australia, I’m often asked, “What did you like most about Australia?”
and my first response is always “The people.” Aussies are the friendliest, most laid back, seriously happy people I have
ever come across. Maybe it has something to do with living on a continent filled with sunshine and surrounded by gorgeous beaches. I also believe it has a lot to do with the nation’s philosophy to give everyone “A fair go,” which means “Treat everyone fairly and give everyone a fair chance (to do their best).”
Prepare to be entertained as you join Jennifer and her companion during this adventure through Oz. You’ll learn practical details and how to plan a successful trip. She started out with a cross-continental train journey and rounded back by driving to the Queensland coast to explore the Great Barrier Reef and Magnetic Island. Along the way, they encounter singular characters, surprises and good luck, along with the usual challenges of adventure travel. All the experiences reported in the book are instructive for other travelers.
Not ready for the big trip to Oz? Reading this book will take you there vicariously. Enjoy the ride!
Account of a foot trek in rural Spain originally published in 1928. An adept prose stylist, the young Pritchett isn’t above accepting a lift now and then in his progress from Badajoz to Leon. He’s poor, but richer than the people he bunks down and eats with in a Spain still steeped in suspicion for outsiders.