River Deep, Mountain High

Isabella Bird

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.

Isabella in Hawaii

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.

Still travelling at 60

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.


21 thoughts on “River Deep, Mountain High

  1. Isabella is fascinating, isn’t she? I happen to have been reading her recently and talking about her to an enthusiast, and the impression given is that she’s quite something!

  2. Cornflower – she really is! I can’t believe that she did the things she did, and so many trips taken to inhospitable corners of the world late in life. I am a complete travel wuss, who complains when she hits a traffic jam on the M25, so Isabella is like another creature altogether for me. Utterly fascinating, though.

  3. Oooh! Another intrepid Victorian lady traveller, and one who literally sailed around the world. She makes Lady Duff Gordon and Gertrude Bell look like wimps (and there’s Mary Someone who went to South Africa and nursed British soldiers during the Boer War), which is hard to do. Thank you for introducing her. Do write more about her!

  4. Oh, I just loved reading this – thank you so much for sharing! It really is fascinating how she forgot about her symptoms while traveling the way she did, and I am interested to learn more about how she needed her anchors to remain where they were while she traveled. Such a lovely break in the middle of my day, litlove – thank you!

  5. What an odd coincidence – Richard of Caravana de Recuerdos just posted on Bird as well. Thanks to both of you for the introduction, as I’d never heard of her before. Her life & conflicted relationship with religion & family roots sounds like fertile ground for further exploration, not to mention all those records of the state of her destinations during the 19th century.

  6. Her travelling is amazing in itself but what amazes me even more is the vanishing of her illness. That should be intersting to explore. If that is even possible…

  7. Good for Isabella! It’s so interesting that she wouldn’t let her sister come join her — was it that she needed the sister as an anchor? Did she say that? Could it have been possibly that she liked adventuring in Hawaii but didn’t want to stay?

    (Isabella Bird sounds like a sentence in a poem. Is a bell a bird?)

  8. I’ve been meaning to read this for a while, and so I’m very glad to hear that she’s so interesting. It’s fascinating that she needed to go off on a dangerous voyage for a good cause in order to feel truly healthy and energetic — and it’s wonderful that she was able to pull it off in so many interesting ways.

  9. Wow! I am just thrilled to read this!! What an indomitable lady. Amazing that she had such severe illness and pain and was able to do all that she did. Please do tell us more, and I am definitely heading to the library to check out her writing.
    Very, very cool.

  10. ds – there were several intrepid lady travellers in this era who managed incredible exploits. It seems to have been a little loophole in social convention – a woman COULD travel, and when abroad it was only expected that she should adopt the local customs to some extent. And survival is never a questionable motive! I love reading about them – they had such spirit.

    Courtney – thank you so much! It’s wonderful to have you visit. I’m having such a lovely time researching all these fascinating writers – I’m delighted to have you to share them with.

    Emily – wasn’t that funny, that Richard and I should post on the same topic, unbeknownst to one another! There it is; no matter how eccentric you think your choices, someone else on the internet will be sharing them!

    Caroline – I admit, it’s the disappearance of the ill heath that intrigues me. Put her at home in comfort and safety and she wilted; stick her in a life or death situation and she rose magnificently to the challenge. How could that possibly be explained?

    Carolinareads – I admit, I am very curious about her writings now. I have her rocky mountain book to read and am looking forward to it!

    Jenny – lol! It is a sing-song name. She seemed to have no plans to leave Hawaii until her sister announced her intention of visiting. I think she just liked being on her own – on other trips she was very reluctant to have anyone with her, well, apart from servants and translators, that is. Anyone whose desires she had to accommodate, in other words!

    Dorothy – isn’t that the most extraordinary quirk? And yet, what an exciting one. She was a true adventurous spirit, and whilst not a feminist (as it was unfashionable for ladies in those days) she triumphed in being the equal to any man (and a great deal more courageous than most). I’m looking forward to hearing what you make of her!

    Kerrylee – I’m so glad you like her – I responded in exactly the same way. She just knocked my socks off. Such a courageous spirit! I hope you find one of her books and enjoy it.

  11. When there was something she really wanted to do, and she considered her purpose noble, she was nearly superhuman. Interesting, isn’t it? I think one of the things that is so interesting about the lives of these intrepid Victorians — and there are so many of them — is exactly this mental/spiritual triumph over insanely difficult physical odds. It’s something hard to relate to our modern-day lives, I think…or that quality shows up differently due to differing circumstance. I suppose the people I know who have triumphed over cancer surgery and chemo/radiation treatment might be Isabella’s 21st-century counterparts. But still, that Victorian determination to embrace adventure even while half-dead…it’s food for thought. Especially to someone like yours truly, who won’t even take a crosstown bus for fear of motion sickness.

  12. What a fascinating person! That travelling brought her out of the oppression she clearly felt at home and helped her be healthy says quite a lot in so many ways. She will definitely be an interesting person for your project!

  13. This is the kind of book I would read if I could ever wrench myself away from novels! Actually though, I believe one of the origins of the novel was travel writing. Very much enjoyed your review.

  14. Wow, what a woman. Those Victorians weren’t always the stereotype we think they were! Probably the repression back home did nothing to make her feel better. Traveling and throwing off those restraints obviously did her a world of good. I’d love to read more about her (must see if I have anything on my shelves about her). I hope you’ll write more? 🙂

  15. I can only echo the word everyone else has used – fascinating lady! I want more, are her books in print and are there biographies?

  16. David – well, EXACTLY. I am so with you as far as the cross-town bus goes. I don’t even like getting cold and wet! And such an interesting thought re cancer survivors. You could probably put victims of childhood abuse in that category too. There is clearly something incredibly motivating when a person feels like they ARE going to triumph over the odds. It is definitely something I want to think about more.

    Stefanie – you can see why she’s irresistible to me! I must say, I had never before considered curing my chronic fatigue by treking across the desert – and am not yet convinced that it would work. 🙂

    Lilian – oh gusto is a very good word to apply to Isabella. She had buckets of it.

    Nicola – I hardly ever read travel writing, but this was absolutely compelling, and now that I’ve begun I’d love to read more. I do know what you mean about novels, though. Still my favourite genre, too.

    Caroline – no need to apologise at all! I suppose I should tidy people’s comments up? But that feels a bit presumptuous!

    Danielle – She was living in an era when feminists got bad press, so she was definitely not one – apart, of course, from the fact that she often wrote triumphantly in her diary that she was free of conventions and living as an equal to any man. It literally made her ill to behave any other way, and that’s an intriguing thought!

    Jodie – she really is. Her books are hard to come by, but there are plenty of second hand copies about, and my library held several biographies, although of those, quite a few were multiple biographies looking at several women travellers. I’ve got hold of her book about the Rocky mountains, which was one of her biggest successes. That was quite easy to pick up.

  17. Sorry for the delay in visiting this post, Litlove, but what a wonderful biographical summary you’ve given us here. Bird’s Rocky Mountain adventures have me hoping I’ll someday be able to read her entire book on that journey and not just the fragment I found. Very interesting stuff.

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