Book Review: Eighty Days

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History Making Race Around the World
Matthew Goodman
Ballantine Books, New York
(c) 2013 by the author

You may have heard (at least I hope it’s somewhere in the dustier corners of your memory) that after the publication of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, people started seriously considering the possibility of such a circumnavigation. At the offices of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, crusading reporter Nellie Bly was put up to the task. She departed from Hoboken NJ on November 14, 1889, heading across the Atlantic.

What I did not know was that later the same day, Elizabeth Bisland, a reporter and columnist for the monthly magazine The Cosmopolitan boarded a train leaving Grand Central heading west, with the same goal in mind.

The two women were not just racing the calendar, hoping that the uncertainties of long-distance travel (weather delays, equipment failures, et al.) would be minimal, but also each other.

Goodman does a great job of capturing the action of the race, using contemporary accounts and jumping back and forth between Bly and Bisland regularly. He can’t just write about the race; he aslo works in biographies of the two. There’s a good deal about the publishing business in New York City at the time; not so much about women trying to make their own way in the business world. Well, neither of them seemed to have seen themselves as a “feminist icon”.

Once they are underway, much of the narrative is given over to the realities of long-distance travel in the Victorian Era. Seasickness and boredom were just as problematic as they are now, but the uncertainties of the weather made things positively dangerous.

Goodman includes the side excursions that Bisland and Bly made along the way as they waited for their next connection to arrive. The World arranged for Bly to interview Jules Verne; Bisland visits the Aden Tanks (better known today as the Cisterns of Tawila). There’s a good deal of travelogue here; and why not? That was the secondary purpose of the race. They were supposed to send regular telegrams back to their home offices in order to keep everyone up to date on their progress.

Goodman does point out that in addition to a global network of rail and shipping lines, and the telegraph to connect everyone together so that a global traveler could easily make the necessary arrangements, Bisland and Bly both relied on the global reach of the British Empire in their travels. To have agents and government officials of a friendly power (who spoke the same language) is an invaluable asset when time is of the essence.

I don’t suppose it’s a spoiler at this late date to say that Bly won the race by a few days. Small delays added up to hobble Bisland in Europe, and for her home stretch across the Atlantic, the fast ship she had hoped to take wound up in need of repairs, so she was stuck with the slowest one in the company’s fleet. Meanwhile, Bly used her “home field advantage*” on her journey from San Francisco back to Jersey City.

It’s still a fun adventure tale, and Goodman recounts it well. One could have left it there at the end of the race, but he puts in the proper effort to finish the biographies of Bisland and Bly – and the very different paths their lives took.

* The “rules” announced at the start of her trip were quite clear that only regularly scheduled trains and ships would be used. However, for both of them, bribes were occasionally used to delay or move up departure times. While this is just stretching the rule a little, Bly and the World flat-out broke it when, to get around severe blizzards in the Sierra Nevada mountains, the World commissioned a Special to carry Bly the rest of the way home.

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