Frail health and gender didn’t clip the wings of Isabella Bird, a Victorian pioneer whose wild adventures to far-flung countries made her a respected travel writer of the time, as Emma Turnbull discovers.
When at 72, Isabella Bird finally succumbed to a serious and lengthy illness, she was only recently back from one long, wild journey. Her bags, already packed and waiting in the hallway, were ready for her next solo trip – to China.
These days independent travel is a normal part of the modern western world, and, even at 72, a trip to China isn’t considered particularly extraordinary. Yet Isabella Bird was ending her travels in Edinburgh in 1904 – 14 years before women got the vote in the UK.
The packed bags weren’t holiday suitcases either: Isabella Bird was a travel writer, an adventurer and a pioneer, independently striding across the world in a way that made her an anomaly within her gender. Suffering from very frail health, when in 1871 a doctor advised 41-year-old Bird to live an ‘outdoor life’, she quickly turned her back on traditional Victorian domesticity, embarking upon a series of gruelling expeditions.
Her travel stories were published by John Murray and she rapidly gained notoriety; her letters to her sister Henrietta would be published too, but heavily edited. The unedited versions now reside in the John Murray Archive in the National Library of Scotland: seeing her handwriting on the stained notepaper gives a real sense of this civilised woman in the wilds.
Bird rode bareback and astride (rather than the expected ‘ladylike’ side-saddle) into the Rocky Mountains where she lived among ranch hands and desperadoes, falling in with one notorious hood known as ‘Rocky Mountain Jim’. Her letters home to her sister reveal an unlikely friendship and borderline romance between Bird and the man she referred to as ‘my dear desperado’, although things came to an abrupt end when he was shot dead in a bar-room brawl.
She often travelled totally unaccompanied and, during her lifetime, journeyed to Hawaii, the Rocky Mountains, Japan, Hong Kong, Saigon and Singapore, Tibet, Turkey, Kurdistan, Persia, China and Korea. She spent 45 days riding through storms from Baghdad to Tehran with a young army major, tending tribespeople along the way.
Riding through wild territories, travelling in war zones, sleeping in frozen huts among rats and facing considerable danger, her disposition and health remained decidedly perky, yet on her visits home to see Henrietta she resumed the role of invalid, and biographers notes show she was seriously ill. Some commentators have questioned whether, in Victorian Britain, this was the only way she could justify her unorthodox life on the road.
“It is a strange life up here on the mountain side, but I like it, and never yearn after civilization.”
― Isabella L. Bird, The Hawaiian Archipelago
She returned to ‘civilization’ aged 50 when her sister died, and grief stricken accepted a marriage proposal from a young doctor. She lived a domestic life for five years, her health dreadful, her husband nursing her throughout only to die himself in 1886. Upon his death Bird once more took flight, going on to be the first woman to be made a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and an occasional unofficial agent for the British government, smuggling the odd secret document into dangerous territories.
Bird’s books offered Victorian readers a taste of other worlds. Today with the wealth of travel and holiday options open to single women, the worlds she describes are more familiar, although many women still worry about travelling solo. Bird had no such fear and despite the health obstacles she faced, remained a passionate advocate of independent travel. She believed happiness could be based on a few simple factors:
“Truly a good horse, good ground to gallop on, and sunshine, make up the sum of enjoyable traveling.”
― Isabella L. Bird, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan
Bird paved the way for women to get out there and see the world on our own terms. Her life and writings serve to remind us that sometimes sitting still can make you ill and that, however bleak the outlook, it’s always good to have a bag packed, ready for the next big adventure.
Emma lives in Scotland but her heart is in Newcastle. She is rubbish at cooking and maths but excellent at losing keys and waving back at people who are actually waving at someone else.