On November 14, 1889, muckraking reporter Nellie Bly left New York City on the first leg of a round-the-world race to beat Phileas Fogg’s time of eighty days. Fogg, you will remember, was a fictional character created by French author Jules Verne. Bly would not know until she reached Hong Kong that she was also in a race with a real person, another American writer named Elizabeth Bisland. Bly had three days to get ready, Elizabeth about twelve hours, Bly was traveling east, Bisland west. Bly’s trip was funded by her employer, Joseph Pulitzer’s The World newspaper, Bisland’s by The Cosmopolitan magazine, for whom she freelanced. The two women could not have been more unlike, as the trip was all eager Bly’s idea and reluctant Bisland was fairly dropped in it by her editor. Both publications were in it to raise circulation.
This was a time when women were, quote, cherished, end quote out of anything that had anything to do with anything other than marriage and children. Just being reporters put Bly and Bisland beyond the pale
”I have never yet seen a girl enter the newspaper field but that I have noticed a steady decline in that innate sense of refinement, gentleness and womanliness with which she entered it,” observed one male newspaper editor. “Young womanhood,” rhapsodized another, “is too sweet and sacred a thing to couple with the life of careless manner, hasty talk, and unconventional action that seems inevitable in a newspaper office.”
Sweet and sacred Bly, twenty-five, and Bisland, twenty-seven, wrote for a living. Bly was the sole support of her mother and later her sister-in-law and her children. Bisland supported herself and her sister. Bly was an investigative journalist before the job title existed who contrived to report from inside an insane asylum for women, while Bisland wrote book reviews and hosted literary salons in her New York City apartment. Both were feminists and activists, although neither would have described themselves as such, and both went around the world alone, although neither woman experienced any real hardship as each was sent first class at their publisher’s expense.
One of the fascinations of this book is the detail over what each woman packed. Bly carried one small bag
a sturdy leather gripsack measuring at its bottom sixteen by seven inches. In that small space she managed to pack a lightweight silk bodice, three veils, a pair of slippers, a set of toiletries, an inkstand, pens, pencils, paper, pins, needles and thread, a dressing gown, a tennis blazer, a flask and drinking cup, several changes of underwear (flannel for cold weather, silk for hot), handkerchiefs, and a jar of cold cream to prevent her skin from chapping in the various climates she would encounter.
Measure that out on your desk. Rick Steves could take lessons. This was deliberate, as Bly
wanted to give the lie to the timeworn notion that a woman could not travel without taking along several pieces of luggage.
and a leading travel writer of the day recommended the female traveler, in addition to a small steamer trunk and a satchel, take another trunk fourteen feet square at its bottom. Bisland in a much shorter time packed a lot more than Bly, and she must have regretted it when the French customs inspector had her clothes strewn all over the deck.
In the end, Bly beat Bisland by more than four days, and returned home to a hero’s welcome. People named daughters, race horses, spaniels and Buff Leghorn chickens after her, musicians wrote songs about her, and manufacturers used her name to sell everything from clothing to school supplies to chocolates. Alas, it didn’t last.
In London, The World’s Tracey Greaves paid a visit to the president of the Royal Geographical Society. “While I can’t see that her trip will benefit the cause of science,” observed the Right Honorable Sir Mountstuart Grant Duff [Really, he could have been named for the purpose.], “…Miss Bly has proved herself a remarkable young woman, and I hope she will get a good husband.”
That’s right, little girl, you did your stunt, now go home and be quiet.
The World published her photograph and everyone knew what she looked like, so there was no going back to her job as an undercover muckraker, and she had no talent at fiction, the only writing job she could get. The revisionist history started in almost immediately, as Americans then as now can’t wait to tear down the legend they have only just built up, and Bly didn’t help things by embellishing the legend herself.
Still, I wonder, would as many women have undertaken to climb the Chilkoot Trail had it not been for Nellie Bly’s showing the way a decade earlier? How much effect did Bly’s circumnavigation of the globe have on the passing of the nineteenth amendment thirty years later? How many “sweet and sacred” little girls played the Nellie Bly Around the World board game and were encouraged to believe they, too, could go round the world? be a doctor? lawyer? Indian chief?
I do have some problems with this book, in particular Goodman’s differing attitudes toward Bly and Bisland (He is in love with Bisland and loses no chance to denigrate Bly whenever he can) but highly recommended anyway, not only as a good story but as a you-are-there portrait of the time in which Bly and Bisland lived. How soon we forget how far we have come.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.