Posts Tagged ‘Isabella Bird’

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.

On the United States of America

November 9, 2016

I have never been to the United States, and I can’t see that I ever will: partly because I don’t fly, and partly because I don’t really wish to cope with seeing people carrying weapons in the street. I’ve read lots about the US in my exploration of all sorts of travel writing, from the very earliest days in the explorations of William Bartram, to the later expeditions of Lewis and Clark, and the twentieth century wanderings of others. There are certainly places I’d like to see: Isabella Bird’s descriptions of the Rocky Mountains and Estes Park in particular have fascinated me, and John Muir’s descriptions of the National Parks are wonderful; of course I’d like to see the Grand Canyon and lots of other places I’ve read about, too.

I was fascinated at school when we got to study US history as half of the course for our O-Level, and I’ve read a lot of American literature, too: the American Literature unit in my second year at university was one of my favourite courses. I wrestled with, and enjoyed Walt Whitman’s poetry, and came to read widely in Mark Twain’s novels, essays and travelogues, all of which I really enjoyed and come back to from time to time. And then there were all the writers of the Beat Generation that I came to know during my master’s degree studies. And Catch-22

I grew up during the Cold War; I can vaguely remember hearing news bulletins at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. I came early to realise that what the US was doing across the world was as evil as what the USSR was up to; what was different was that the US was much better at PR and propaganda and held all the pretty cards. They presented themselves very effectively as the good guys, offering the sweet taste of freedom. However, there is freedom to and freedom from, and when you start looking more closely, the cards are dealt rather differently. The US was very good at suggesting it had a dream, that it was a noble enterprise, a moral force for good in the world, and many people swallowed that.

I know relatively few Americans. Those that I have met, as colleagues or a students, I have really liked, have enjoyed talking with: they have seemed just like any other people I have met and got to know from many different lands. I’ve always enjoyed diversity and learning about other nations, people and places, and regular readers will probably have me down as a curious person.

And so I am dumbfounded today. I’ve often thought that many Americans – the ones I haven’t met, but read about – come from a different planet. Make all the allowances and excuses you like for the US political establishment or the Democratic party being out of touch with ordinary people – and I agree with those sentiments – I cannot see how anyone can think that it’s acceptable to vote for a serial liar who boasts about assaulting women; I’m utterly gob-smacked that any self-respecting woman could go into a booth thinking ‘I will vote for this man to run my country’. I’ve read a lot about the 1920s and 1930s (see my previous post) and I’m getting an awful dense of deja-vu, even though I wasn’t alive then…

Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.

Gender and reading (again)

November 29, 2014

I’ve written on this topic before, but a news story this week, about recent research that shows we tend to read books written by our own gender, has had me thinking about the subject again. I did some quick (and not very systematic) research that showed that by far the greater proportion of books on my shelves were by men, and that, according to my reading log, this year only 21 out of 78 read books so far were by women…

Somewhere I’d fondly imagined that I might have done rather better: for instance, I spent the best part of three years in an earlier existence researching Feminism and Science Fiction (you will have to go to the Science Fiction Foundation in Liverpool to access a copy of my thesis) and that says something, to me at least, where my sympathies lie.

Considering my bookshelves more closely: pre-twentieth century, there’s some kind of a balance, with Jane Austen and George Eliot fully represented: I have a picture of the nineteenth as a women’s century in literature; certainly the two already named tower above Dickens and Hardy for me. When it comes to the twentieth century fiction, men win. In science fiction, it’s not so clear, particularly given my thesis, and if I were to award my prize for achievement in twentieth century SF, at the moment it would go to Ursula LeGuin, as you might guess from some of my recent posts, although Philip Dick would come a very close second. Again, with my travel writing section, men far outdistance women writers, but if I had to choose my favourites, they would be women travellers such as Ella Maillart and Isabella Bird.

Then I tried thinking about what is actually going on. More books, quantity-wise, are written by men. I’m a boy, so I like boys’ books? Simplistic, but some topics or subjects naturally appeal more to males than females, and I can’t be that much of an exception. I make those choices, and to a certain extent, there’s a self-fulfilling prophecy happening here. Historically, there’s always a sorting and sifting process going on with fiction in terms of what will stand the test of time, and it’s interesting that so much of the fiction written by women in the nineteenth century is at the top of the pile. Does this mean that Margaret Atwood and Pat Barker (to name but two) will stand out from the last century?

In the end, though it feels like a cop-out, I have to say that I don’t choose books by the gender of their authors, I choose books because they look tempting and I want to read them, and though I suppose if I went through my reading journal for the forty years for which it exists I’d still find a preponderance of books written by men, the books by women I have read have always made me think. Women do write about different things, differently, and inevitably pose a challenge to the other gender.

Isabella Bird: The Golden Chersonese

September 17, 2010

511CX1MKT3L._AA160_I first came across Isabella Bird via the librivox website and downloaded a wonderful recording of ‘A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains’, and this was the only book I’ve ever read that actually gave me a real desire to visit the United States.  A solitary woman traveller in late Victorian times, she describes her adventures vividly, and comes across as amazingly intrepid.  ‘The Golden Chersonese’ is her account of travels through the wilds of the Malaysian coast and jungle and rivals the escapades of many more well-known male twentieth century travellers…

I read travel writing as I don’t currently have the freedom or the time to travel as much as I’d like; I do find accounts from days when travel and exploration were serious and demanding enterprises much more interesting than most of what is currently written. There’s more of a sense of adventure, discovery and hardship, as well as curiosity, I think.  The world is so well-known and travelled nowadays that most writers seem already to take previous knowledge and perhaps previous judgements along with them.

There are lots more travel books waiting on my bookshelf.  Should you stumble across this blog and have anything to recommend, I’m interested.

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