In 1873 Jules Verne published his novel Around the World in 80 Days in which Phileas Fogg wagers his fortunate that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. In 1889 a brash young female reporter who went by the pseudonym Nellie Bly convinced her bosses at the New York World (owned by Joseph Pulitzer) to send her around the world. Her goal was to complete the trip in under 80 days. Reading about the trip the morning of Bly’s departure, Cosmopolitan magazine owner John Brisben Walker, convinced Elizabeth Bisland to undertake a similar trip. Both women left New York within hours of each other on November 14, 1889. Bly sailed east and Bisland trained west. The “race” was on. Eighty Days is a well researched, truly enjoyable, retelling of their travels, triumphs and defeats.
This is a captivating and fascinating story. First, neither traveler had more than two days to prepare for their amazing adventure. Second, both traveled alone at a time when very few women did so. Third, the publications sponsoring the tours did so entirely for their own profit. Fourth, the race around the world became a national sensation and made the names Bly and Bisland world renowned for a time. In 1890, when woman’s equality was shunned by most, these ladies became international celebrities.
Goodman bases his text entirely on the words of the protagonists, using their writings and published articles. He goes to great lengths to provide useful and interesting background information to help the reader see the whole picture. Eighty Days helps the reader comprehend how exciting this undertaking was to Americans across the country. This was akin to any major modern sporting event in terms of the enthusiasm of the fans and excitement it generated. The anticipation of the outcome is palpable as you read.
There are numerous details that make Eighty Days a wonderful read for anyone interested in history. The nature of their trips ensured contemporary discussions about Victorian mores and gender roles, as well as constant instances of ingenuity, romance, greed, and intrigue. It is fascinating to consider how technological advances made it possible to complete the rapid tour.
Both women made it around the world in under 80 days, however, you will have to read the book to find out who won and how the race changed their lives. The fact that few of us know about this great race proves the adage that history is quickly forgotten, but relearning it is worth the effort. If you want further proof consider the following:
As I read this book, I recalled that early in this library’s history a donation of quality books was given to the Williamsburg Public Library. After finishing Goodman’s book I confirmed my suspicion that it was none other than Elizabeth Bisland Wetmore (she married Charles Wetmore in 1891), and one of Bisland’s relatives, who made the gift of 250 books to our library in 1910. How cool is that?
Check the WRL catalog for Eighty Days
Also available as an ebook