Nellie Bly was a newspaper reporter in the late 1800s, a writer of daring undercover exposés about conditions in prisons and mental institutions at a time when few newsrooms employed women. But her lasting fame came from her solo trip around the world in 1889, when the New York World dispatched her to break the (fictitious) record set in Jules Verne’s novel “Around the World in Eighty Days.”
Bly set off confidently, alone, carrying just one small suitcase. The trip was primarily a publicity stunt, meant to boost circulation — which it did, by thousands. The ante was upped, though, by something that Bly didn’t find out about until halfway through her trip: Another journalist was racing around the world at the same time in the opposite direction.
Her opponent, Elizabeth Bisland, was a genteel Southerner, a writer of literary magazine pieces, and a reluctant participant in the competition, dispatched to California by her editors at the Cosmopolitan just hours after Bly set off for England.
In his delightful, well-researched book, “Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World,” Matthew Goodman brings to life the two women, the complicated, fast-changing times and the way the whole country was swept up in their parallel adventures. This is fully documented history, drawing on contemporary accounts, letters and the women’s own writing, but Goodman crafts it into a page-turner, emphasizing the thrill of the race and the differences between the women.
Bly and Bisland were intrepid, hustling across oceans and continents, enduring seasickness, exhaustion and terrifying train rides at speeds so high the wheels lifted from the tracks. But they were more different than alike, Bly brash and bold, Bisland refined and proper.
Goodman shows how Bly changed during the journey from a woman concerned with social justice to an imperious, jingoistic traveler. By the time she reached Asia, “Gone were the curiosity, the perceptiveness, the moral sense,” Goodman writes. “Only reluctantly did she participate in sightseeing expeditions on which, more often than not, she was repelled by what she saw.”
The trip changed Bisland, too, but in a different way, broadening her outlook, instilling a deep love of Japan and its culture, opening her up to the world.
The heart of the book is the race and its aftermath. The winner was lauded with parades and accolades; the loser was greeted by a few hundred curious souls and her older sister.
In the end, though, the trip did not serve either journalist well; Bisland seldom spoke of it again, while Bly went on the lecture circuit, for which she was highly criticized. “It was one thing for a young woman to go around the world,” Goodman writes, “and apparently quite another for her to attempt to profit from it.”
The oddity of two young women traveling the globe alone captivated the country, but once the race was won, the women were expected to return to their place. Eighty days was all they got.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior books editor at the Star Tribune. On Twitter: @StribBooks.