Isabella Bird

Mon, Apr 16, 2018

I’m reading a book about Japan by the remarkable Isabella Bird.

Isabella Bird

Isabella Bird

I don’t remember ever caring much about travel writing when I was younger but, coinciding with my own travelling further afield, I’ve read more of it. Theroux, naturally, and Thubron; but also older efforts, like Thesiger, Robert Byron, Eric Newby. And going way back I really enjoy travel writing from a time when it was unusual-to-near-impossible to make the journeys made, where travelling was exploring.

Starting with the periplus of the Cartheginian Hanno, who voyaged through the straits of Gibralter and down the west coast of Africa, where he describes attacking and capturing some hairy people, whom he had to kill (and skin) because they were so violent and wild. - best guess now is that he and his companions actually captured and killed some chimpanzees - and on through Sir John Mandeville, Marco Polo and Mungo Park, these adventurers’ reports make for fascinating reading.

One especially remarkable traveller, a woman for whom the word ‘indomitable’ might have been invented, is the English Victorian Isabella Bird. She took her doctor’s advice to travel for the benefit her health literally and excessively, journeying to Tibet, China, Japan, Malaysia,Australia, Hawaii, the USA and the Middle East. She supported herself with her writing and became the first female Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. To travel to some of these places today might be considered adventurous; to travel to them as a single female from late Victorian England was unheard of.

Here’s a list of just some of her publications:

  • The Englishwoman in America. 1856.
  • The Hawaiian Archipelago. 1875
  • Australia Felix: Impressions of Victoria and Melbourne. 1877.
  • A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains.
  • Unbeaten Tracks in Japan. 1880.
  • Sketches In The Malay Peninsula. 1883.
  • Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan. 1891.
  • Among the Tibetans. 1894.
  • Korea and Her Neighbours. 1898.
  • The Yangtze Valley and Beyond. 1899.

Much of her writing is available for free on Gutenberg and/or very cheaply on Amazon for the Kindle.

The book I’m reading at the moment describes her arduous treks in Japan, way off the tourist track, where she’s frequently the only westerner the locals, who often have never heard of England, have ever seen.

Her stories of her trials – the thickly-mudded paths, the vicious and recalcitrant mules, the mosquito-and-flea infested yadoyas she stayed in – and her desriptions of the customs and the people, has resonances with today’s Japan and startling differences. She describes the people as, usually, extremely gentle, polite and kind-mannered, which chimes with my experience; but on the other hand the food she ate when on the road was often the most basic and boring, which couldn’t be more different from my time over in Tokyo.

She was an astonishing woman who whould be better-known, I think.


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