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Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World

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Sample Pictures from Eighty Days A drawing of “the rival tourists” that appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.Click here for a larger image Nellie Bly in her distinctive traveling outfit.Click here for a larger … see full wiki

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Viral sensation in Victorian times: Fact follows fiction around the world

  • Jul 6, 2013
Jules Verne's popular novel about a trip around the world to win a bet was turned, in the hands of a young female reporter, into a media event that blended the romance of the novel with the reality of life in the Victorian world.  Bly, a young female reporter from Apollo, PA, a small river town about 15 miles up the road from where I recently moved, made a name for herself as an undercover reporter in New York at a time when a writer from her place and gender had no place in New York journalism.  Then, when she convinced her publisher to undertake the round the world trip with her as the solo traveler in 1889, she became a viral sensation.  When the publisher first rejected her proposal saying only a man should attempt it and could complete it, Bly countered that she would be glad to find a competitor to sponsor her and she would beat the clock and the man.

But as it turns out, in the untold story that Goodman brings to life in his interesting account, Bly's competitor wasn't a man, but another woman!  Elizabeth Bisland was also a young single female journalist who specialized in literary reviews, instead of muckraking exposes, and came from rural (but genteel) Southern roots left impoverished by the Civil War to make her name in New York's publishing capital.  When her employer, a fledgling magazine named The Cosmopolitan that would later come to fame for a different kind of writing, read the headline in the New York World newspaper that Nellie Bly had left to circle the globe, it instantaneously sent Bisland off on the same mission but in the opposite direction.  While Bisland's attempt got some early publicity, the World demonstrated the early marketing principle of being first with the loudest voice, and Bisland was soon forgotten (and finished second).

Goodman weaves the two tales by alternating between the two travelers as they moved through opposite spheres; his sidebars on women's place in journalism and travel, on the realities of train and steamship travel that crossed time and national boundaries, and on the relative position of England and America on the world scene in 1889 (the British Empire was worldwide and broad shouldered, America barely even known or acknowledged internationally) add depth to the story and the history.  While Goodman does follow the route and keep track of the time, he doesn't just or even primarily provide a play by play of the trips, but wisely focuses on the logistics of the trip connections and the responses of the travelers to the world around them.

Perhaps most interesting of all are his descriptions of the. great difference in the circumstances at the end of their journeys, and the events that each women experienced after their life changing days on the run around the world.  The similarities (for example 20 years after circling the globe in opposite directions both women were active in leading vounteer war relief efforts during World War I) and contrasts (Bisland volunteered in supportof the Allies in the UK, Bly for the Austria-Hungary side in Vienna) between the two are fascinating and poignant.  While both moved on, neither left the world they had seen behind; this despite the vast difference in their experience of the world and the "race" between them and against time and Verne's fictional traveler.  When Bly's viral public celebrity bubble burst, she struggled to move past it.  Bisland's star never rose nor fell so far, but the experience also left her with the deep challenge of assimilating it into the life she had left behind less than 80 days before.

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July 07, 2013
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