Eighty Days Elizabeth Bislands History Making
On a recent discussion threat for a writer support group that I am a part of, one of the other women took the opportunity of marking Women's History Month by insisting in the most absolute and implacable terms that until American women had the national franchise extended to them in 1920, they were mere helpless chattels, powerless before the courts, economically completely dependent on their menfolk and invisible to society at large ... purest bull-hockey, I know, and I should have argued the point by referencing my copy of this book, which countered just about every claim she made about the condition of women in late 19th century America in telling of the epic round-the-world journeys of two female travelers over the winter of 1889. Both Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland were about the same age; both earned a good living in the media hustings of the time, one was a hard-working and hard-charging Northerner, the other a genteel and cultivated Southern lady.
In the publicity stunt of the decade, they were sent by their respective publications to circumnavigate the world and beat the record of 80 days set by Jules Verne's fictional hero, Phineas Fogg. Theoretically, it was at least possible, given the mind-numbingly rapid advances which had been made in the decades following the Civil War. Once it had been the laborious business of six months to cross the United States from the Mississippi River - now it could be done in a week by train. The crossing of the Atlantic by ship now took a week in some comfort on a speedy packet steamer, rather than the six to eight weeks of misery that it had been under sail. Telegrams carried the news instantly. The world had become small - and now Joseph Pulitzer's World newspaper proposed a demonstration by sending his intrepid star female reporter around the world. The magazine Cosmopolitan proposed to make it a real race - and their star reporter Elizabeth Bisland went west by train, even as Nellie Bly caught the steamer east.
The race was on; it made a star of Nellie Bly for a time ... and this is a copiously detailed account of their separate headlong journeys. I personally favor lots of detail in accounts of this kind, although other reviewers have felt bogged down and eventually bored. I did not; and as a record of what it was like to travel the world in 1889 this book is like a five-pound box of mixed artisanal chocolates. There are splendid curiosities, interesting people, events and descriptions everywhere, noted as Miss Bisland and Miss Bly went hurtling past at full speed. Most definitely this book, which I had in advanced edition, needs maps, lots of them and in detail. I hope that the final version does include them.
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