Friday, March 8, 2013

International Women's Day: Isabella Bird

I recently came across Isabella Bird, a Victorian traveler and writer who defied the norms of her time and instead of marrying and settling down, she went out to see the world.

in a Manchurian gown

Since she wasn't very healthy, she was allowed to travel to the United States when she was 23 years old in 1854 in the hopes that this would improve her condition. It did and for the rest of her life, traveling always did. I cannot shake the suspicion that the stifling Victorian society made her ill - that being sick was her defense against the things expected of her. Bird almost never was sick when she traveled, only when she had to come back home.
Her travels seem adventurous even today and during her lifetime, she saw things very few Europeans had seen. She went to North America, Australia, Hawaii, Japan, China, Vietnam and other parts of Asia. Most of her travels were on horseback, like the 800 mile-journey across the Rocky Mountains.

Isabella Bird in Tibet
in Tibet

She did marry in 1880 and not surprisingly, it proved disastrous for her health. However, her husband died only six years later and once again, she traveled. 56 years old, she studied medicine and this time, she went to India. From there, she went to Tibet, Persia, Turkey, China again and North Africa. At the time of her death in 1904, she was busy planning another journey to China.

She was accepted as a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and her books were bestsellers. You can download many of them for free from and they are still interesting to read - Bird is an author who writes an easily readable conversational tone and she tells vividly of her encounters with men and beasts in exotic countries that most of her readers would never see - and may never see even today.

Bad Reputation
University of Adelaide

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