On this day in 1889 two women set off, in opposite directions on a round the world trip. They meant to prove that Jules Verne’s fictitious journey in his novel ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ was possible. Not only that, they were to try to break the imaginary record. Nellie Bly was an undercover reporter and all round adventurous person of some renown who I have written about elsewhere. Her opponent, Elizabeth Bisland was very different. She didn’t actually want to go at all. She was worried it would make her famous, and she certainly didn’t want that.
Elizabeth Bisland was literary editor of a new magazine called ‘The Cosmopolitan.’ Her job was to read newly published books and write reviews of them. She was pretty happy with that, she liked books. But then, on the morning of November 14th, the magazine’s owner, John Walker, read that Nellie Bly was about to set off alone around the world. She intended to not only equal but beat the eighty day journey of Phileas Fogg. He thought it would be a great idea, and good publicity for his magazine, to introduce a bit of competition. But who to send? It couldn’t be a man, sending a man to compete against a lady would have been very bad form. He thought of Elizabeth.
So at 10.30 on the morning of November 14th, Elizabeth received a message from her boss asking her to visit him in his office immediately. She had no idea what it was all about and wasn’t particularly curious to find out. Not being an early riser, she later remembered: “My appetite for mystery at that hour of the day is always lamentably feeble…” So, although the office was only a few minutes walk away, she didn’t get there until eleven o’clock. There, she says: “on arriving, the editor and owner of the magazine asked if I would leave that evening from New York for San Fransisco and continue from there around the world, endeavouring to complete the journey in some absurdly inadequate space of time.”
At first, she thought it was a joke and not a very funny one. When she realised he was serious, she said she didn’t wish to go, she said she couldn’t go because she had friends coming to tea. Then she said she wouldn’t go because she couldn’t possibly pack everything she would need in just a few hours. But it was all to no avail, Elizabeth was going. In the five hours remaining to her, she managed to visit her tailors to get a frock finished in time for the journey and pack two cloth dresses, half a dozen bodices, a silk dress for the evenings and plenty of hair pins.
By the time Elizabeth reached San Fransisco, she was already receiving more attention that she would have liked. She had to wait there for two days for her ship and was forever being visited by people who just wanted to look at her. It made her feel like: “ a sort of inexpensive freak show”. After a shaky start and a lot of complaining about the smell of opium in China, to her credit, she seems to have enjoyed her journey in the end and met a lot of charming and fascinating people. Unlike Nellie, a swashbuckling adventuress, she wrote more lyrically of her journey. In Singapore she describes: “Tall Hindoos go by leading little cream-white bulls with humped necks, who drag rude carts full of merchandise … Nearly all foot-passengers are half or three-quarters naked. It is an open-air museum of superb bronzes, who, when they condescend to clothe themselves at all, drape in statuesque folds about their brown limbs and bodies a few yards of white or crimson cloth, which adorns rather than conceals.” clearly quite a sight for a lady from 1880’s New York.
Elizabeth came quite close to beating Nellie but when she was about to leave England on the final leg of her journey she was told that the fast German steamer she had intended to catch had been delayed and she was forced to travel on a slower ship. Meanwhile, Nellie was speeding across the United States on a train specially charted for her by her editor Joseph Pulitzer. Nellie beat Elizabeth by four and a half days.
While Nellie was travelling the country delivering lectures about her adventures, Elizabeth quietly slipped off back to England and stayed there ’til the heat died down. Elizabeth didn’t want to be famous and she really isn’t, so that really worked out pretty well for her. But for a while she was the second fastest person to travel round the world.