The Amazing Isabella Bird

A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, by Isabella L. BirdOne of the subject areas with which we launched the Cambridge Library Collection in July 2009 was ‘Travel and Exploration’. Our expert advisor on accounts by nineteenth-century travellers in the USA gave us a list of names and titles, some of which were familiar – Fanny Trollope, Charles Dickens, Harriet Martineau, James Fenimore Cooper – but some unknown to us. Who, for example, was Isabella Bird?A quick look at A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains had us hooked. Who could resist her adventures – recorded as letters to her sister which, she artlessly tells the reader, were never intended for publication – which included riding alone across the prairie, trying to help a family dying of cholera in the face of indifference from the local inhabitants, and an encounter (if it was nothing more) with that western archetype, the one-eyed, romantic, courteous, poetry-declaiming outlaw, ‘a man any woman might love, but no sane woman would marry’, who by the following year was ‘in a dishonoured grave, with a rifle bullet in his brain’.

Isabella Bird was one of the many Victorian women who emphatically fail to conform the ‘angel in the house’ stereotype. A clergyman’s daughter, born in 1831, she was a sickly child who dreamed of exotic lands overseas. In 1854 she was given £100 by her father to enable her to visit relatives in America – she was to return when the money ran out. This first journey seems to have improved her health considerably – leading to the thought that her problems may have been psychological rather than physical? – and she described it in her first (anonymously published) book, The Englishwoman in America.

The death of her mother in 1868 changed her family circumstances. She resumed her travels, apparently in an effort to avoid the fate of settling with her sister in the Isle of Mull – and in 1872, she set off round the world, visiting Australia, Hawaii and the US, where she travelled to Colorado to try the effect of Rocky Mountain air on her health. This led to the adventures in A Lady’s Life, which made her famous. Back in Britain, she was proposed to by an Edinburgh doctor, John Bishop, and this emotional crisis sent her on her travels again, this time to Asia. She eventually married Bishop in 1880, but her health worsened, and though she recovered with her husband’s care, he died in 1886. She then decided to stop being a mere traveller, but to bring help to the people among whom she travelled: in her late fifties, she trained as a medical missionary, and in 1889 arrived in India, later visiting Tibet, and moving back westward via the Ottoman Empire, then in turmoil as the grip of Turkey over its territories was weakening. In 1897, by now a household name and the first female Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, she went to China and Korea.

She died in 1904, still planning new expeditions. As The Spectator remarked in 1879, ‘There never was anybody who had adventures as well as Miss Bird.’

We have now reissued most of her books. They are

The Englishwoman in America (1856)

The Hawaiian Archipelago: Six Months Among the Palm Groves, Coral Reefs, and Volcanoes of the Sandwich Islands (1875)

A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains (1879)

Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1880)

The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither (1883)

Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan (1891)

Among the Tibetans (1894)

The Yangtze Valley and Beyond (1899)


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4 Responses to The Amazing Isabella Bird

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