Born an Englishwoman in 1831, Isabella Lucy Bird grew up in Tattenhall, a village about eight miles southeast of Chester and 35 miles from Liverpool. The county of Chesire is in the west of England. Her father was a Church of England minister. Isabella suffered from poor health – a possible mix of boredom and the lack of education and social restrictions. I can imagine that!
Her father gave her 100 pounds sterling in 1854 to visit relatives in America, with the directions to stay as long as the money lasted. The 23-year-old Isabella jumped at the chance. To think she had to wear hoops, lived out of a trunk while traveling, had to visit outhouses or worse, and keep the proprieties of the day -- I'm ashamed to say I haven't accomplished one tenth of the traveling this 19th century woman did!
Isabella wrote her first book, The Englishwoman in America, about her adventures, published in 1856 as a first-hand account of her shipboard journey from England to Halifax, Canada, and then overland to Boston, Cincinnati and Chicago. The Kindle edition is free, if you’re interested in reading bits like this:
“The path is a narrow, slippery ledge of rock. I am blinded with spray, the darkening sheet of water is before me. Shall I go on? The spray beats against my face, driven by the contending gusts of wind which rush into the eyes, nostrils, and mouth, and almost prevent my progress; the narrowing ledge is not more than a foot wide, and the boiling gulf is seventy feet below. Yet thousands have pursued this way before, so why should not I? I grasp tighter hold of the guide's hand, and proceed step by step holding down my head. The water beats against me, the path narrows, and will only hold my two feet abreast….”
Interesting, first-person narration that proves she could write, in the flowery style of the times. After her parents’ death, Isabella returned to the British Isles and lived with her sister Henrietta in Scotland. She used her royalties to help Scottish craftsmen to emigrate to America after writing numerous articles in journals and magazines. But "poor health" soon descended again.
In 1872, Isabella took off and toured Australia – which she disliked – before she traveled to Hawaii (called the Sandwich Islands at the time). Clearly she preferred the latter, since she wrote a second travelogue book, The Hawaiian Archipelago, published in 1875. But before that, she returned to tour Canada and the United States.
Colorado, in fact, in 1873. Isabella explored the Rocky Mountains (800 miles of it) while riding “like a man” instead of sidesaddle. A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains is also free on Kindle, and includes her friendship with “Rocky Mountain Jim.” She described Jim Nugent, a one-eyed “dear desperado” who seemed to appreciate her independent spirit and returned her affection, as “a man any woman might love but no sane woman would marry.” Smart woman! Within a year after Isabella headed onward in her travels, Nugent was shot and killed.
Back home in Scotland, she was courted by an Edinburgh physician, John Bishop, but decided her health needed a tour of Asia instead – Japan, China, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia. After her sister died of typhoid in 1880, a despondent Isabella decided to marry John Bishop. That led her to become a nurse by studying medicine so that she could travel as a missionary. At almost sixty, she toured mission stations in India, Persia, Kurdistan and Turkey.
Isabella Bird's many travelogue books of all her adventures led her to being named the first woman “fellow” of the Royal Geographical Society in 1892, and also a member of the Royal Photographic Society in 1897. She wasn’t done, though. Isabella soon traveled to China and Korea, as well as Morocco. A few months after her return to Edinburgh in 1904, she died at 72 with plans for another trip to China.
A formidable woman, indeed!
Meg Mims is the award-winning author of Double Crossing (WWA Spur Award - Best First Novel, 2012) and Double or Nothing, the sequel. She also writes contemporary romance novellas. Meg loves westerns on film and TV despite her lack of enthusiasm for riding a real horse -- a mutual feeling in the few instances they've attempted to pair up. Meg prefers her sofa while watching cowboys at work. Less dust, bugs and sunburn, too.
Meg is also one half of the team D.E. Ireland, contracted for a cozy mystery series featuring G.B. Shaw's Professor Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle - coming in 2014 from St. Martin's Press.