When the journalist Nellie Bly set out on a journey to beat Jules Verne’s fictional character, Phileas Fogg, she proved that women are up for any adventure.

maps of the world
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In 1889, renowned journalist Nellie Bly proved that a woman could make a trip around the world in record time while travelling (mostly) by herself. With the support of her newspaper, Pulitzer’s New York World, she sets off across lands and seas with only one bag, one dress and her money in a bag tied around her neck. Around The World in 72 Days is the testimony of her intrepid adventure and a book that remains nowadays a great insight into the life and mind of one of the most intrepid women of the 19th century.

From the World, Nellie Bly with her single dress and her only bag
Public Domain

It took the young woman some persuasion to convince her employers to finance her journey. She got the idea on a Sunday night and brought it up to her editor in 1888. However, it took a year and a good amount of persuasion for a man not to be chosen over her for the task, as she recalls at the beginning of her story.

‘It is impossible for you to do it,’ was the terrible verdict. ‘In the first place you are a woman and would need a protector, and even if it were possible for you to travel alone you would need to carry so much baggage that it would detain you in making rapid changes. Besides you speak nothing but English, so there is no use talking about it; no one but a man can do this.’

‘Very well,’ I said angrily, ‘Start the man, and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.’

‘I believe you would,’ he said slowly.

A year later, on November 14 1889, an overjoyed Nellie Bly boards the Augusta Victoria and sets off for England. It’s 9:40 AM, the beginning of a once-in-a-lifetime challenge. The book A Tour Around The World in 72 Days is a first-hand account of her adventure and the confirmation of the strength of character of the woman considered as the pioneer of investigative journalism. The modern edition of the book is enhanced with articles by her colleagues following her journey, added for perspective and a small dose of suspense.

A Fearless Woman

Bly’s editors are not choosing blindly to put their trust (and a certain amount of money) in her. The young woman has already proven she is capable, fierce and fearless. Born Elizabeth Cochran in 1864, she started her journalism career writing about the condition of women’s workers in factories, angering a lot of businessmen. Instead of accepting to be relegated in the fashion pages, she moves to Mexico to accomplish “what girls have never done before”. There, she angered the Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz and had to flee back to the U.S. The Pittsburgh Magazine for which she was working dared to assign her back to fashion and theatre.

She quits, moves to New York and proves herself to Pulitzer by going undercover in a women asylum. Her report of the horrific treatments suffered by the patients there forced the authorities and the asylum to adopt better practices. With the book Ten days in a Mad-house, Nellie Bly becomes famous and will forever be remembered as a feminist and a pioneer of investigative journalism.

It comes as no surprise then that while rushing to beat Jules Verne’s invention, Nellie Bly never seems to lose her nerves. Is she worried about beating a fictional character? Certainly. Stressed and sleep-deprived? Absolutely. Delighted by the attention she receives along her journey? Guilty. But she never loses view of her goal nor let unforeseen difficulties discourage her. She makes the most of her circumstances and beats her own goal by accomplishing her circumnavigation in just 72 days instead of 75.

I would rather go back to New York dead, than not a winner

The world as we (she) know it in 1889

Bly’s first-hand travel report is a valuable testimony of the world dominated by the West and as it was seen and experienced by a Westerner in 1889.

The book reminds us of a time when flying over oceans in just a few hours was not an option. Crossing the Atlantic in six days and some is then a marvellous achievement. Cars are also absent from all the lands she crosses: the patent of the first modern car by German inventor Karl Benz had only been registered in 1886. When Bly is back in the United States but behind her schedule, the World is not shy about spending its money to send special trains racing through the land to get her back on time, giving the opportunity to the chosen company to display its technics and reactivity. Imagine this today. Bly’s attempt at a circumnavigation in record time would make no sense with the commodity of flying.

The intrepid journalist recounts the cities and countries she races across sometimes with very little details, sometimes with brilliant descriptions of sceneries and landscapes. The world she was in 1889 does not exist anymore and we enjoy in her telling of how it used to be.

The bay, in a breastwork of mountains, lies calm and serene, dotted with hundreds of ships that seem like tiny toys. The palatial white houses come halfway up the mountainside, beginning at the edge of the glassy bay. Every house we notice has a tennis-court blasted out of the mountainside. They say that after night the view from the peak is unsurpassed. One seems to be suspended between two heavens. Every one of the several thousand boats and sampans carries a light after dark. This, with the lights on the roads and in the houses, seems to be a sky more filled with stars than the one above.

Publicity portrait for the World

Nellie Bly was certainly a barrier-breaker for women of that time. She never accepted to be told she was not capable or brave enough to do something, and persistently proved her opponents wrong. Her notes and tales of her extraordinary circumvention of our world show her wits, her sense of humour and her capability of making the best of distressful situations. She does not miss a chance to make fun of some of the passengers crossing her path in the various boats she embarks on, especially if it is to call out basic misogyny.

There was another young man on board who was quite as unique a character and much more interesting to me. He told me that he had been traveling constantly since he was nine years old, and that he had always killed the desire to love and marry because he never expected to find a woman who could travel without a number of trunks, and bundles innumerable. I noticed that he dressed very exquisitely and changed his apparel at least three times a day, so my curiosity made me bold enough to ask how many trunks he carried with him.

‘Nineteen,’ was the amazing reply. I no longer wondered at his fears of getting a wife who could not travel without trunks.

As a professional journalist, Nellie Bly never forgets that she writes primarily for her audience at home, part of which are women. And she has some pieces of advice for them.

At every port I touched I found so many bachelors, men of position, means and good appearance, that I naturally began to wonder why women do not flock that way. It was all very well some years ago to say, ‘Go West, young man;’ but I would say, ‘Girls, go East!’ There are bachelors enough and to spare! And a most happy time do these bachelors have in the East. They are handsome, jolly and good-natured. They have their own fine homes with no one but the servants to look after them. Think of it, and let me whisper, ‘Girls, go East!’

Less noble was some blatant racism that speaks of the period she was living in but also tarnishes her image of a social justice and women’s rights defender. Sometimes, she is just so proud to remind everyone and especially her audience at home that she is American and thinks very highly of her home country. At other moments, her lack of respect, empathy and curiosity for different cultures is astonishing.

“Priests rushed towards us to advise us to take off our shoes before stepping onto the old stone path leading to the temple. Its dirtiness was sacred, to tread upon it would be a sacrilege!”, she writes with a touch of condescension about her visit to a temple in Singapour.

“My comrades complied and were allowed to enter the temple. As for myself, my womanly status forced me to remain outside.

‘And for what reason?’, I asked curious to know why my sex excluded me from sacred places. It was as if in America I had to enter a hotel by the backdoor, or some theatrics of that sort.”, she continues, saying she laughed the matter off but remained at the door waiting for her male friends to visit.

I can see why she would be puzzled as a foreigner and maybe disappointed for being forbidden entry into the temple. This topic is still very contemporary. In India at the beginning of 2019, millions of women formed a 620km (385-mile) human chain “in support of gender equality” and to claim the right to enter the Sabarimala shrine, which was historically closed to women of “menstruating age”.

Yet, journalist Nellie Bly who already travelled so much does not appear too curious about the history behind her ban. Her attitude feels condescending and colonial. Even more with the fact that earlier during her journey, she relates without any touch of anger that women had been forbidden to go out on the deck of the boat in the cold hours of the morning. They had been doing so because of the heat but also because male passengers were occupying the space later on. But from the moment male passengers started going on the bridge in their pyjamas at the same time, it was decided it was improper for women to go out and see them. Bly notes the situation but does not comment on it.

Worse are her description of the men in several Asian countries carrying people around in chairs and rickshaw. More often than not, she compares them to animals.

I was not feeling so proud for being taken out in the city by a human being, however, I ended up thinking it was a very modern way to get around. Indeed, this horse did not need anyone to take care of him, and when we would go out shopping it was very pleasant not to worry about the horse and carriage being covered.

Is Running Against Time Travel?

Nellie Bly is not a travel writer and her book is not a travelogue. Unlike Clara Arnaud in “On the paths of China” (published in French), she does not interrogate the nature of travels and what pushes human beings across any frontier they face. She is in for the challenge.

Around the World in 72 Days is an adventure. A very successful one for her who had so much to prove as a woman, and for her newspaper which pulled out a fantastic publicity stunt. This incredible marketing campaign contributes to further establish Bly’s popularity as a journalist. Once she reaches America, close to her goal although a few days behind on schedule, her newspaper pays for special trains to take her across the country in (another) record time. But she also makes a lot of stops to salute the crowd who came to applaud and congratulate her. Policemen try to no avail to contain the overjoyed population who got a chance to catch the sight of Nellie Bly. At one occasion, a policeman gives up and tries his luck trying to shake Bly’s hand. She tells the story with pleasure.

Archives of the World
Public Domain

The suspense is kept all along the journey and through the book. Until the end, it is not clear whether the young woman will reach her goal. The addition of snippets of articles written by Bly’s colleagues in the book gives a very interesting insight in the way the newspaper kept people hooked for 72 days, with articles updating her travel status, board games, a lottery…

Nellie Bly proved just one more time how brave and capable she was. I found myself biting my nails at the possibility that she might not make it back on time. Days of waiting for a boat are only a few pages long for us but feel like an eternity just as much as it must have felt for her.

Yet, her lack of curiosity and her attitude towards populations new to her, particularly in Asia, tarnished her image. Other readers have pointed out that she has shown more empathy in her writings about Mexican people and against the dictatorship. Her book Ten Days in a Mad-House about her passing for a mad woman to uncover the abuses in the Blackwell Island’s lunatic asylum is an irrefutable proof that she cared deeply about the rights and suffering of women. While racing to circumnavigate the world, however, she does not have the time to explore. Focused on the challenge that she feels too proud to lose, she misses the opportunity to become an explorer of the world.

Other Western women of her time were more dedicated to exploring and less to succeeding in a publicity stunt. Mary Henrietta Kingsley set off for West Africa by herself in 1893. Alexandra David–Neel became in 1923 the first Western woman to enter the Forbidden City of Lhasa and to be received by the Dalai-Lama. Another French woman, Jane Dieulafoy, travelled the world between 1881 and 1914 with her engineer husband, documenting and photographing in great details the people she encounters. Fanny Vandegrift, Beryl Markham, Amelia Earhart, Anita Conti… all braved social conventions and left a permanent impression on society and on the history of travel.

How long would you take to travel around the world? Where would you go and what would you take in your luggage?

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