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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Isabella Bird ….Victorian Lady; World Traveler

by Anna Kathryn Lanier

Isbella Bird
 Isabella Bird was born in Yorkshire England in 1831 to a devout evangelical father and a gentlewoman mother. Isabella grew up learning to be the quintessential Victorian English woman. During the summer on her grandparents farm, however, she learned to shake off the boundaries of expected female behavior and spent a great deal time in the out of doors, traipsing about, learning to row and becoming an accomplished horsewoman. Her childhood wasn’t pain free, though. She was plagued with back pain, headaches and fatigue

After having a fibroid tumor removed from near her spine in 1849, the doctor suggested “a change of air” to speed recovery. Her father took the family to the Scottish Highlands for a vacation. Hours spent in the outdoors, “scrambling up steep hills for hours” improved Isabella’s health.

Back home, she was stifled by the Victorian expectations of the era. Bored with the pointless activities women participated in, Isabella wrote an article about the family’s trip to Scotland for a family magazine. After its acceptance, she went on to write human interest stories for several different magazines.

Her health problems continued and once again, she was advised to find “a change of air.” Following her doctor’s advice, she travelled to Nova Scotia, Canada with several visiting cousins. From there, she embarked on her first solo travel—a 6,000 mile trip from Halifax to Portland, Maine via a boat, then to Ohio via train, then on to Chicago, across Lake Erie to Niagara Falls and finally back to Halifax. She never felt better in her life.

Using her the notes she’d jotted on the journey, Isabella wrote a book “The Englishwoman in America,” released in 1856. It was a success, but the money from the royalties made her uneasy. She’d been brought up in world where women didn’t earn money, instead they did good works.

With this as her influence, Isabella used her royalties to help those in need. In this case, she bought boats for impoverished Scottish fisherman. It was the first of many acts during her lifetime “to do what she believed most fitting for the role of a genteel woman.”

After her father died in 1858, Isabella stayed home with her mother and younger sister, Henrietta. For more than a decade, Isabella wrote articles and did charity projects. Eventually, the lure of travel and her body told her what she must do—travel. In 1872, six years after her mother’s death, Isabella embarked on an around the world tour, going to New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii (where she stayed for six months) and finally to her destination—Colorado in America.

Her adventures continued in the Rocky Mountains. She rode horseback over snow-covered fields, climbed mountain peaks and most likely fell in love with a genuine Mountain Man, Jim Nuget. Jim, however was “a man any woman might love, but no sane woman would marry." Her love for her sister and her own feelings that she was too old for such a reckless step prevented her from staying in Colorado.

Returning home to Scotland, she spent the next few years writing books of her adventures and traveling to create new ones. Her travels took her to Japan, China and the Malay States, with frequent returns to Scotland, Henrietta and a suitor, Dr. John Bishop, “Who, in Isabella’s mind, had fantastic notions of his own if he thought she would marry him.”

After the death of her dear sister, a heartbroken Isabella did marry Dr. Bishop in 1880. The marriage wasn’t the romantic bliss one might hope for and Isabella’s health suffered for it. When her husband died six years later, she noted “henceforth I must live my own life.”

Isbella in Tibet
 In 1889, she arrived in India as not only a world traveler, but as a missionary. Within months she’d purchased land and started building two hospitals in the memory of her sister and husband. During this time she also visited Kashmir, the Himalayas, Tibet and accompanied a military reconnaissance, who used escorting her as a cover for their mission from Simla through Persia to Tehran.

In 1892 The Royal Geographical Society in London invited Isabella to speak. She turned them down, as they did not accept women as members. Instead, she agreed to speak to the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, who did allow women into their ranks. Embarrassed by this turn of events, The Royal Geographical Society promptly voted to accept women and invited Isabella to be the first woman Fellow. Five years later, she was asked again to speak, specifically on her travels to China.

Isabella continued her travels right up until her death in 1904 at the age of 72.

LADIES FIRST: History’s greatest female trailblazers, winners and mavericks by Lynn Santa Lucia

Further research:

Spartacus Schoolnet
Unitproj Library UCLA

Visit my website for information on this month's contest....win four romance books!  http://www.aklanier.com/ and click on the contest page.
Anna Kathryn Lanier
Where Tumbleweeds Hang Their Hats


Marie Higgins said...

What an inspiration to us all! I love research like this! Thanks so much!


Ann Lethbridge said...

Gotta love those strong British Victorian women. Gosh, what a life she had. I feel so boring just getting on a plane and visiting places.
Thanks for the post.

Susan Macatee said...

A woman after my own heart! I love writing in this time period. Despite the Victorian constrictions on women, many bucked the norm and did all kinds of fascinating things! Great fodder for a strong romance heroine!

Anonymous said...

Great blog!!!!!!

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Hi, Marie, Ann, Susan and Tess. Thanks for stopping by. Yes, Isabella was a very gutsy woman. I need to look at amazon, because I think one of her books is still in print! She led quite an adventuresome life, not all of which I was able to include.

Sally said...

What an example on so many fronts. She sure stirs up the adventure in my spirit.

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Hi, Sally. Yes, she is quite an example. Even today, her adventures would be wonderous, but to have done it on her own in that era is remarkable.

Hugh Morris said...

Isabella Bird was an awesome human!


Anonymous said...

Anyone know about her genealogy. I need info for a project.

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

I'd have to look up the information I found on her, but off hand, no, I don't know her genealogy.

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

The eldest daughter of the clergyman, Ernest Bird, Isabella was educated at home my her mother, Dora (Lawson) Bird.

This is from Spartacus Schoolnet, link is above in the article.