Victorian womanhood sometimes gets a rap in the press as a condition of intense stodginess, rigid piety and terminal repression. Many of the British women writers and thinkers we read from the period give this assumption the lie. Then there is Isabella Bird, who somehow manages to combine both a personal radicalism and the worst stereotypes of her society in her writing.
Isabella Lucy Bird was a 19th century British explorer—and what an explorer. Women like her had grown used to global travel through the latter half of the 19th century, accompanying friends and family around the world on their colonial exploits, trade missions or simply on pleasure trips. Bird, unlike many of her compatriots, travelled alone, and to get away from the demands of domestic life. She had been a physically fragile child, and we may guess at the effect that prolonged convalescences may have had on her desire to travel. Flouting convention and improvising with courage and skill to travel freely in places and times when single women found it hard going, she became a famous exception. From her first trip in America in 1856, she went on to visit the Outer Hebrides in the UK, Australia, Japan, China, Persia, Morocco—and a good part of the rest of the world.
Wanderer: A portrait of Isabella Bird, a 19th century British explorer.
Her best-known book, published in 1879, was another American odyssey: A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains. Reading it today conjures up images of inner North America that are now entrenched in cultural memory, but which must have been fresh and—given their unusual source—especially piquant at the time.
Bird has a terrific eye for description. Her America, a place of vast, humbling landscapes, deep colours and an environment that can make a human traveller feel like an intruder, is one that any explorer would have been proud to write about.
She also has a hilarious inability to tolerate most other human beings. As she travels through Colorado, we meet a large cast of characters who continually disappoint her. In Cheyenne she complains about the foul-mouthed men stumbling out of bars, answering only to the rough justice of the mob lynching; in Greeley, you can practically hear her suppress a sigh at the zealous temperance colony of “total abstainers, all holding advanced political opinions”.
A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains: By Isabella Bird, 1879, available to read on Google Books and Project Gutenberg.
She’s never shy of expressing insulting personal opinions, presumably because she never thought her subjects were likely to read her (“She looks like one of the English poor women of our childhood—lean, clean, toothless, and speaks, like some of them, in a piping, discontented voice, which seems to convey a personal reproach”). Her racism almost mitigates the work of other Orientalists discussed in this column (“They are perfect savages,” she writes of a Native American party, “without any aptitude for even aboriginal civilization, and are altogether the most degraded of the ill-fated tribes which are dying out before the white races”).
Her portrait of the Rockies may enlighten us on many things that a male, explorer might have written of; but the portrait it affords us of her, and how people related to her, is utterly unique.
Isabella Bird’s Footnote on
“For the benefit of other lady travelers, I wish to explain that my ‘Hawaiian riding dress’ is the ‘American Lady’s Mountain Dress,’ a half-fitting jacket, a skirt reaching to the ankles, and full Turkish trousers gathered into frills falling over the boots,—a thoroughly serviceable and feminine costume for mountaineering and other rough traveling, as in the Alps or any other part of the world.”
Isabella Bird meets Deer Valley Justice
A man accidentally shoves another in a saloon, or says a rough word at meals, and the challenge, “first finger on the trigger,” warrants either in shooting the other at any subsequent time without the formality of a duel. Nearly all the shooting affrays arise from the most trivial causes in saloons and bar-rooms. The deeper quarrels, arising from jealousy or revenge, are few, and are usually about some woman not worth fighting for. At Alma and Fairplay vigilance committees have been lately formed, and when men act outrageously and make themselves generally obnoxious they receive a letter with a drawing of a tree, a man hanging from it, and a coffin below, on which is written “Forewarned.”
Isabella Bird commutes in Colorado
Early the next morning I left in a buggy drawn by light broncos and driven by a profoundly melancholy young man. He had never been to the canyon; there was no road. We met nobody, saw nothing except antelope in the distance, and he became more melancholy and lost his way, driving hither and thither for about twenty miles till we came upon an old trail which eventually brought us to a fertile “bottom,” where hay and barley were being harvested, and five or six frame houses looked cheerful. I had been recommended to two of these, which professed to take in strangers, but one was full of reapers, and in the other a child was dead. So I took the buggy on, glad to leave the glaring, prosaic settlement behind. There was a most curious loneliness about the journey up to that time.
Sketches: (above) A drawing of one of Bird’s stopovers in A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains and impressions of the Rocky Mountains. Dori/Wikimedia Commons
Isabella Bird is from Venus, Men are from Mars
Vainly I pointed out to him that we were going north-east when we should have gone south-west, and that we were ascending instead of descending. “Oh, it’s all right, and we shall soon come to water,” he always replied. For two hours we ascended slowly through a thicket of aspen, the cold continually intensifying; but the trail, which had been growing fainter, died out, and an opening showed the top of Storm Peak not far off and not much above us, though it is 11,000 feet high. I could not help laughing. He had deliberately turned his back on Estes Park. He then confessed that he was lost, and that he could not find the way back. His wife sat down on the ground and cried bitterly. We ate some dry bread, and then I said I had had much experience in traveling, and would take the control of the party, which was agreed to, and we began the long descent.
Isabella Bird meets a Romantic Hero
“Jim” was a shocking figure; he had on an old pair of high boots, with a baggy pair of old trousers made of deer hide, held on by an old scarf tucked into them; a leather shirt, with three or four ragged unbuttoned waistcoats over it; an old smashed wideawake, from under which his tawny, neglected ringlets hung; and with his one eye, his one long spur, his knife in his belt, his revolver in his waistcoat pocket, his saddle covered with an old beaver skin, from which the paws hung down; his camping blankets behind him, his rifle laid across the saddle in front of him, and his axe, canteen, and other gear hanging to the horn, he was as awful-looking a ruffian as one could see. By way of contrast he rode a small Arab mare, of exquisite beauty, skittish, high spirited, gentle, but altogether too light for him, and he fretted her incessantly to make her display herself.