REVIEW: The Life and Travels of Isabella Bird (2021)

A Book By by Jacki Hill-Murphy

Reading about adventurers or explorers is not really in my historical wheelhouse, so I was unfamiliar with Isabella Bird prior to reading this book. If she is more noteworthy in the UK, I can see why. In a time when women were largely destined to stay at home and take care of the house while popping children out – Bird when out and traveled the globe, usually by herself, in times when such things were unheard of. Given 100 Pounds at the age of 23, she set out on an adventure that defined her life and never looked back. Bird was able to write about her trips, and eventually sustain her subsequent travels using the money from previous books. She was a prolific writer at the time, and Jacki Hill-Murphy has taken great care to summarize some of her works as well as talk about the sociopolitical climate around her at the time, and even her own personal life.

Isabella Bird travelled to the wildest places on earth, but at home in Britain she lay in bed, hardly able to write: ‘an invalid at home and a Samson abroad’. In Japan she rode on a ‘yezo savage’ through foaming floods along unbeaten tracks, and was followed in the city by a crowd of a thousand, whose clogs clattered ‘like a hailstorm’ as they vied for a glimpse of the foreigner. She documented America before and after the Civil War and was deported from Korea with only the tweed suit she stood up in during a Japanese invasion. In China she was attacked with rocks and sticks and called a foreign dog, but she never gave up and went home. ‘The prospect of the unknown has its charms.’

Transformed by distant lands, she crossed raging floods, rode elephants, cows and yak, clung to her horse’s neck as it clambered down cliff paths, slept on simple mats on the bare ground, unable to change out of wet clothes or get out of the searing heat. Her travels and the books she wrote about them show courage and tenacity, fuelled by a restless spirit and a love of nature. She is as unique now as she was then.

Perhaps one of the more interesting travel locations of hers, for me at least, was reading about her trip through the antebellum United States in the 1850s. Usually traveling by wagon or train, she mainly stayed in the northern part of the US, but got to hear about certain issues regarding slavery and things that would eventually boil over into The Civil War. Her views are somewhat bigoted for modern ears, but sadly typical for the time, as she felt slavery was good, and that slaves generally loved their predicament. Had she traveled to the deep south, perhaps she would have had a different viewpoint? She would later return to America, but this time after the war and travelling the Rocky Mountains. I honestly might try to read The Englishwoman in America, as that early Nineteenth Century time period is slowly becoming one of my favorite times to explore.

This book gave me at least one idea for a book to read, so I think it’s a success. While her descriptions of other locations such as Korea and Japan during the late Victorian period are interesting, that really isn’t where my interest largely lies, so I won’t seek any of that out further, this book does a fine enough job of summarizing it for me. I feel bird was a remarkable woman; considering her medical issues she embarked on the sort of trip that many dream of. Hell, When my back hurts I sometimes barely travel outside, much less a multiple month long trip across the ocean! This was a solid book, and I assume I enjoyed it more not knowing anything about Bird, but nonetheless I’m glad to have read it.

If you are interested in your own copy of this book, please check HERE

NOTE: I received a free preliminary, and likely unedited copy of this book from Netgalley for the purposes of providing an honest, unbiased review of the material. Thank you to all involved.


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