Jules Verne’s famous book Around the World in Eighty Days is the story of Englishman Phileas Fogg who bets his friends that he can circumnavigate the world in 80 days. First published in 1873, the novel was a great success and is still in print today. Several years after the publication of Verne’s novel, Nellie Bly, famous reporter for the New York World newspaper, set out to beat the fictitious Fogg’s 80 day timetable for travelling completely around the world. She left Hoboken, New Jersey in a steamship sailing east on November 14, 1899.
On that same day, another New York reporter, Elizabeth Bisland of Cosmopolitan magazine left New York travelling west across the United States by train. Bisland’s goal was to beat Fogg and Bly around the world. Would either woman be able to beat Verne’s fictitious hero? And which reporter would make it back to New York first?
In Matthew Goodman’s fascinating history Eighty Days, the tale of this extraordinary race is told, alternating between Bly and Bisland as they made their way around the world via train and steamship. The story of Nellie Bly was told in hundreds of newspapers around the United States, but Elizabeth Bisland did not get nearly the same amount of coverage. Goodman rectifies this by giving short biographical sketches of each woman, telling of their lives before and after the race, and often quoting from their own books about their travels, which lets both women’s voices come through.
It was an interesting time for travelling, as the completion of the Suez Canal and Transcontinental Railroad and the prominence of steamships and passenger trains made a journey around the world much shorter than it had previously been. Both Bly and Bisland dealt with storms, mechanical mishaps, late-arriving ships, strange food, unpleasant fellow travelers, dramatic changes in weather and temperature, and long periods of boredom punctuated by frantic rushes to catch the next train or ship. Both women were pioneers in another sense too: in this period, a woman travelling by herself was almost unheard of, and for two women to travel alone in such a great hurry was completely new.
Goodman’s book is an excellent read, and whether you’re traveling via airplane, train, car or just in your favorite chair at home, you’re sure to learn something interesting in this excellent history of travel and of two fascinating and brave women who did what was considered impossible.
The library call number for this book is G440.B67136 G66 2013.
-Adrienne Meier, Social Sciences Librarian and University Archivist