The intrepid Victorian travel writer, Isabella Bird, began her career as a chronic invalid encouraged to get a ‘change of air’. In her teens she had suffered from a fibroid tumour near her spine that caused her backaches, headaches, fatigue, insomnia and a host of other ailments. An operation to remove the tumour (in those days an extremely dangerous procedure) brought only temporary relief. When her symptoms reappeared, doctors prescribed a change of scene, thinking she would head to Bournemouth. Instead, Isabella listened to the advice of Canadian cousins who were visiting and returned across the Atlantic with them to visit the New World. Prince Edward Island was nice enough, but it was only when Isabella, against all advice, packed her bags and set off unaccompanied on a boat to Maine, and that boat ran into a tremendous storm nearly costing the passengers their lives, that she began to find her unusual vitality. The adventure fired Isabella up, it excited her; in that first trip she covered more than 6,000 miles across America, her symptoms forgotten.
Returning home, her father encouraged her to write a book describing her experiences. Travel was highly fashionable and America a source of great fascination. Fanny Trollope (Anthony’s mother) had written a book about her own travels, but she had declared the Americans vulgar and uncultured, causing some uproar (but selling a lot of copies on the back of it). Isabella Bird, however, had loved the country and enjoyed the novelty of her experiences; her enthusiastic and youthful approach struck a new note and the book was published quietly but to critical acclaim.
The financial success caused Isabella some embarrassment; as a well-brought up young lady from a clerical family, her aim in life was self-denial and devotion to good works. Her family was deeply principled: one of her cousins was William Wilberforce, who led the fight to abolish slavery in England, and her aunts refused sugar in their tea to protest against slave labour. Isabella’s own father repeatedly lost his job because he insisted on preaching against work on the Sabbath. This went down badly in the rural farming community where they first lived, and then when the family moved to Birmingham, it caused even more trouble amongst the traders. He was lynched on his way home one day, pelted with mud and stones by angry shopkeepers, and they had to move again. These principles must have looked fine and admirable to the family, but I wonder how difficult they made life for Isabella who, from childhood, had a strong personality and a mind of her own. She solved the problem of her royalties by using them to buy new boats for impoverished fishermen in Scotland, a decision that pleased her parents and delighted the Scottish Highland community. But idea of being selfless, as deeply ingrained as it was, ran against her own personal need for independence and adventure. When her father died, she felt it was divine retribution for having been so selfish as to do what she enjoyed and she vowed never to travel or write again.
She stuck it out for twelve long years, at the end of which, crippled by pain, anxious and depressed, she gave in to her sister’s pleading to take another sea voyage. By now Isabella was 39. This time she chose to go to Australia and New Zealand, but the claustrophobic heat made her worse, not better. So she set off for California under much more auspicious circumstances: a boat that was barely seaworthy. She toiled through hurricanes and engine failure, clobbering cockroaches with her slippers, playing chess and quoits on deck with the other passengers. When one fell ill, Isabella realised the elderly alcoholic doctor on board was incompetent. They docked in Hawaii and Isabella accompanied the invalid and his mother, who were alarmed at the prospect of coping in a strange land. But Isabella fell in love with the islands and finally stayed six months in what she considered to be paradise. All the time she was away, she was writing to her beloved sister, Hennie, and these letters would form the basis of the books she would compose on her return. Her letters were so rapturous and so insistent on the healthful life available in Hawaii, that Hennie wrote back she was packing her bags to join her. Instantly, Isabella backtracked, compiled a litany of complaints about the islands, badmouthed the local people she loved and assured her sister she would be in America by the time she received Hennie’s reply. It was an intriguing illumination: Isabella needed Hennie as an emotional anchor back in Britain, and she needed to be travelling alone, free and unencumbered by her family.
Isabella did move on from Hawaii to the Rocky Mountains, which was the trip I had intended to write about! Suffice to say that the book she wrote on her travels was a huge bestseller and established her as a well-known and admired travel writer. Her time in the Rockies was the last time that she was an amateur, travelling only for her health (riding through snowdrifts, living in freezing log cabins and scaling mountain peaks rather spoiled her chances of ever being considered an invalid abroad again).
But the link between health and adventure is one that intrigues me. Isabella always sought selfless reasons for her trips; she went to Japan in order to explore territory that no one knew anything about, she went to India and Persia as a medical missionary. Once that connection between essential charitable work and her own desires was established, she was a powerhouse of energy, tireless and indomitable. Isabella fell ill with typhoid fever (that would later kill her sister in Scotland), when she was crossing the desert to Mount Sinai. Riding a bad-tempered camel for ten hours at a time, under a blistering sun, severely dehydrated, she nevertheless survived the illness in conditions that would have incapacitated a healthy person. But this was a pilgrimage, to the place where the commandments that had so governed her father’s life had been created, and she counted the trip among the most significant of her life. When there was something she really wanted to do, and she considered her purpose noble, she was nearly superhuman.
What she couldn’t bring herself to do was give up the roots that she quietly hated. Writing to a friend before returning from a trip, she said ‘ I still vote civilization a nuisance, society a humbug and all conventionality a crime, but possibly I may fall into the old grooves speedily.’ And she did. She needed the despised conventions in order to transcend them with adventure. I don’t think Isabella is really auditioning, I think she’s in. Her life is one I would definitely like to write more about.