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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

HerStoria Spotlight - Isabella Bird

One of the articles in the second issue of HerStoria Magazine is about the Victorian traveler – Isabella Bird. Not only was her life fascinating – but she caught my eye for another reason, I will expand upon later.

Women in the Victorian period were not expected to be world travelers, but that was exactly what Isabella Bird was. Isabella grew up in a religious household, with her father as a minister. Isabella had a great relationship with her father and he fostered her love of traveling – even if it was just a drive down the street. Isabella was often sick with various problems, and the thing that always seemed to make her better was travel. She would say that when she would return home from one trip or another, her ills would return.

Over her long life she visited many places: America, Canada, Sandwich Islands, Japan, South America, and Korea, among other places. Not only did she travel to these places, but she wrote about all of her travels too. Her books told of places to go, what the geography was like, the composition of the population, religion, political trends. She really discussed all elements of culture and nature.

Some of her books include:
The Englishwoman in America
A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains
Unbeaten Tracks in Japan
Korea and Her Neighbors

Isabella’s love of travel really uprooted her from the traditional view of Victorian women of the time. Her sister, Hennie, took the domestic route – which was something Isabella didn’t want. She did eventually get married, to a doctor – but that didn’t last long as he died a few years later. Isabella became a household name and grew up out of the role expected of her.

I was first introduced to Isabella Bird while reading the play Top Girls by Caryl Churchill for my Women’s Lit class in college. The first act of this play has several historical women getting together to talk about their lives. Among them there is: Pope Joan (also the first time I heard of her), Isabella Bird, Dull Gret (from a painting by Pieter Brueghel), Lady Nijo (a Japanese mistress of the Emperor) and Patient Grielda (from The Canterbury Tales). With many of these women being from literature, I figured Isabella Bird was too, but I was shocked to find out she was a great woman. I really enjoyed this play and would recommend it as it is a quick read.

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