Before reading this book, I am pretty sure that I’d heard about Nelly Bly — the plucky, earthy, sensationalist journalist — and her trip around the world in 1889. But if you haven’t, the bottom line is this: Bly got the New York World to fund a trip around the world, racing Jules Verne’s Phineas Fogg’s record. She figured, rightly in the end, that she could beat 80 days. However, one of the main things I learned in this excellent history by Matthew Goldman is that Bly wasn’t the only one traveling around the world. One of the World’s competitors sent its own reporter — Elizabeth Bislund, who in many ways was the opposite of Bly: elegant, refined, pretty, literary — on a trip in the opposite direction, making it a race not only against time, but against each other.
In this thick but highly readable history, Goodman not only thoroughly examines both women — discussing their histories and how they became to be newspaper writers — but also the history of the time. He gave me, as a reader, a sense of this time of anticipation, sitting on the cusp of the modern world. It is this sense of almost-modernity that is encapsulated in the fact that both Bly and Bisland could do something like travel around the world in less than 80 days, by themselves.
I found myself alternating rooting for one or the other (I honestly didn’t know beforehand, though I could guess, which one won the race), finding myself admiring both women. Bly was more plucky, for lack of a better word, going around the world with one suitcase, and had a whole lot more drive than Bisland. Bly also was extremely patriotic: she viewed the world through a U.S.-colored lens, and found everything else lacking, something which grated on me. Bisland was the more open-minded traveler, less determined to “win” and more willing to look at the world on its own terms (which were, admittedly, decidedly British in the 1880s). For that, I think she was better off.
Perhaps most revealing is the epilogue, in which Goodman sketches out the rest of these women’s lives. There is a price for fame, fleeting as it is, and Bly paid it.
It’s an interesting work of history, engaging and well written, and I thoroughly enjoyed spending time learning about both this remarkable time and these fascinating women.