by Matthew Goodman
On November 14, 1898, Nellie Bly, the crusading young female reporter for Joseph Pulitzers World newspaper, left new York City by steamship on a quest to break the record for the fastest trip around the world. Also departing from New York that dayand heading in the opposite direction by trainwas a young journalist from The Cosmopolitan magazine, Elizabeth Bisland. Each woman was determined to outdo Jules Verns fictional hero Phileas Fogg and circle the globe in less than eighty days. A vivid real-life re-creation of the race and its aftermath, this is history with the heart of a great adventure novel.
I delight in spotlighting the lives and accomplishments of women in past timesparticularly ordinary women doing extraordinary things. Matthew Goodman does an excellent job bringing Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland to life, filling in the background of exotic locations and Victorian attitudes as they make their remarkable journeynot just around the world, but through life. In his prologue, Goodman sets up the reader with vivid descriptions of the two journalists leaving on November 14, 1898. He then backtracks to tell each of their stories and the ambitions that led to their history-making race. In a tactic used throughout the book, this leads to exploring the history of women in journalism up to that timea remarkable taleintroducing the reader to a raft of intrepid women who covered politics, corruption and social justice issues; as well as tea parties and fashion shows in eras hostile towards women in any public role.
Nellie Bly, born Elizabeth Jane Cochran, left school at fifteen and worked at whatever jobs she could find including kitchen girl, nanny and housekeeper to support herself and her widowed mother. It was a hard scrabble life in the west Pennsylvania coal country. Incensed by a piece in a local Pittsburgh paper the Dispatch that flatly stated women should leave the public sphere to men and stay at home, Bly replied with a long letter to the editor. He didnt print the letter, but asked Bly to write an article of her own on the question of the womans sphere. At age twenty, she took her nom de plume and wrote her first piece for a newspaperan impassioned plea for the plight of poor women. After a couple of years, she left the Dispatch, with a brief note, I am off to New York. Look out for me. Bly. There, she continued her reporting career at Joseph Pulitzers The World newspaper, specializing in undercover assignments exposing abuse and corruption in public institutions. It was here she proposed to her editors that she travel around the world in seventy-five days.
Elizabeth Bisland, a beautiful southern belle born at the beginning of the Civil War, came by her journalistic chops through a totally different path. Her genteelly impoverished family didnt have much money, but they did have books. She availed herself of them, devouring Shakespeare, the English poets and novels by Cervantes and Zola. At age twenty-one she left home to make her own way in the world. The Times-Democrat of New Orleans hired her to write for the womens pages covering high society. Although she came from an upper class family and covered the rich, Bisland knew she had to make her own living. At twenty-three she started the New Orleans Womans Club, dedicated to womens professional advancement. She traveled to New York with fifty dollars and recommendations from literary and newspaper friends. She worked for The Cosmopolitan, a monthly magazine run by John Bisben Walker, writing features and literary criticism. On the morning Nellie Bly set out on her journey, Walker called Bisland to his office and asked if she could leave that day for a trip around the world. After some strenuous persuading on Walkers partincluding a considerable boost in salaryBisland agreed.
The race was on.
Heres where Goodmans writing and research come to play. The majority of the time Bly and Bisland traveled by steamship and rail; well attended by captains, pursers and agents at every port and transition. A few minor glitches and the occasional layover at an exotic locale add spice to the narrative, but mostly they hung out on board ship. Goodman breaks up the journey with witty insights and superb research on everything from the passengers and the nature of the steamships to the overwhelming influence of the world-wide British Empire. He packs in an incredible amount of history, geography, science and geopolitics. Its not until the final leg, when bad weather (and possible dirty tricks) looks to defeat both women in making their goal, that the actual race becomes exciting. I wont spoil the ending, but the last week of that journey would tax any traveler.
Goodman concludes his book with a satisfying summary of each womans life and career after they return. This book is a fitting testament to Bly and Bisland, a page-turning true adventure and a delight to read. Highly recommended.
Title: Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World
Author: Matthew Goodman
Publisher: Ballantine Books (February 26, 2012)
Format: Hardback (450 pps)
Cover Price: $28.00
Note: I received a free Advance Reading Copy of this book through an early reader program. The opinions expressed in this review are my own.