Pat Barr: A Curious Life for a Lady

September 26, 2022

     I’ve been fascinated by the Victorian traveller Isabella Bird ever since I came across and really enjoyed the Librivox recordings of A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains and The Englishwoman in America, both excellent and enjoyable listens. So when I came across this in a second-hand bookshop – not having even known of its existence – I had high hopes of learning more about the intrepid woman. And there are clues to aspects of her life that aren’t written about in her books.

However, the book as a whole was rather disappointing: most of it consists of a rather lifeless summary of all Bird’s actual travel books, with lengthy quotations, but almost completely devoid of the spirit of the woman who actually wrote them. So the book saved me having to read some books which I was warned were rather lengthy and worthy, but it did seem rather a futile endeavour.

Bird travelled mainly for her physical and mental health: while she vegetated in Scotland, various ailments and unhappinesses took over her life; when she travelled she became a different person. Her grim home life and health really did contrast greatly with her happiness and vigour as she travelled, and the curiosity and happiness that comes across in her books. Many of these were derived from detailed letters she wrote to the sister she loved and left at home in Scotland while she was abroad.

Gradually a picture does emerge of Bird, and there were a few more details about the one aspect of her life that had intrigued me, her relationship with the outlaw figure Rocky Mountain Jim, with whom she explored Colorado and about whom she writes in considerable detail; in another world one can almost imagine them as lovers…

Bird wrote well; she stepped out of the narrow gender confines of her age, took astonishing risks for a single woman traveller at any time, survived some hair-raising scrapes, and so necessarily gives a refreshing and open perspective on what she saw as she travelled the world.

I can recommend Isabella Bird as a traveller and writer, but not this account of her life and travels.


One Response to “Pat Barr: A Curious Life for a Lady”

  1. Sounds like I need to add the actual travel writings to my reading list!


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