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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Chronicler of the Path Untread: The 19th Century Journeys of Isabella Bird.

As Isabella Bird, in her seventieth year and in the middle of her last great adventure, sat across from the Sultan at Marrakesh, telling him tales of her adventures in her soft, measured voice, she surely had cause to reflect upon the increasingly improbable series of events that made of the daughter of an eccentric clergyman one of the world’s most celebrated explorers. She was, in appearance and deportment, the sort of unchallenging figure who was expected to move from drawing room to drawing room, feasting on local gossip and plunging into local charity work as the sum total of her life’s activities, and yet this short, plump, gray haired woman had seen villagers eviscerate a tiger on the Malay peninsula, climbed a volcano in the Sandwich Isles, witnessed the invasion of Korea during the Sino-Japanese War, wrangled cattle in Winter’s sting in the Rocky Mountains, and spoken with the holy men of deepest Tibet.

For the first half of her life, Isabella Bird (1831-1904) could well have been a character from a Victorian novel - a perpetually ailing child born to a family of middling wealth and respectable standing (the famed abolitionist William Wilberforce was among their relatives) whose life was consumed by inertia, religious devotions, and the steady slip of her life’s potential. Her father was a clergyman whose obsession with prohibiting work of any sort on the Sabbath had resulted in dwindling church attendance everywhere he went until he ended up at last at the tiny parish of Wyton in 1848, there to spend the last decade of his life in a state of comfortable defeat.

Frustrated professionally, Edward Bird was able to take delight in the intellectual development of his daughter, who absorbed with alacrity all his teachings about botany and Latin, while learning French, literature, history, drawing, and religion from her mother Dora, and who went on to add chemistry, history, metaphysics, and biology to the subjects she determinedly taught herself. These intellectual attainments were some recompense for the steady treachery of her own body, as spinal pain savaged her youth, culminating in an operation to remove a spinal tumor when she was eighteen years old. She fought throughout these years against a variety of ailments, some of which had their root in the tangible ailments of her spine, and others of which arose from the mentally static atmosphere that her gender and social status confined her to day after day. Insomnia, mental fogginess, generalized aches, depression, lethargy - all of the signs of a mind too broad for the narrow frame it was being compelled to inhabit.

Fortunately, at the age of twenty-three a wise doctor recognized that much of her problem likely stemmed from the combination of a sedentary lifestyle that compounded many of her health issues, and a static mental horizon that gave her no outlet for the exercise of her intellectual capacities. He prescribed a long sea voyage and travel as the most necessary thing and so, armed with a hundred pounds and instructions from her father to keep traveling until it was completely used up, Isabella Bird set out for North America and a new lease on life. The pain-racked and lassitude-prone clergyman’s daughter transformed in her new environs into a ball of energy and curiosity whose drive to see and do outpaced the pain that had been her constant companion heretofore.

Returning home, Bird turned her letters and observations into an anonymous book, An Englishwoman in America (1856) which was a success solid enough to assure Bird of her abilities as a writer, and the next decade and a half would be filled with the authoring of religious tracts, and the organizing of emigration expeditions from the Outer Hebrides to North America to relieve the plight of the Hebridean crofters. Meanwhile, her health, in the absence of motion and adventure, deteriorated again, leaving her unable to rise from bed before noon. Her father passed away in 1860, followed by her mother in 1866, leaving Isabella and her sister Hennie alone in the world, but comfortable enough financially to preserve them from want. As Isabella’s health continued to deteriorate, she was at last, in 1869, ordered by her doctor to take another strenuous trip and it was at that point, at the age of 38, that the epic of Isabella Bird well and truly began.

Well, nearly. Her first destination was Australia, where she had a generally miserable time and gained no benefit, but on the boat departing Australia she began to accustom herself to the rhythms and rigors of the sea, and found them to her liking. She began to discover that civilization, with its expectations and limitations, was something she anticipated returning to with dread, even the semi-civilization that her next stop, 19th century San Francisco, might offer. And so, she took an opportunity to disembark with a fellow passenger at the Sandwich Isles (Hawaii), and found herself immediately drawn into the routines of island life. She closely observed the mutual interactions of island culture with the growing Euro-American presence, and took every opportunity to disappear on horseback into the island wilderness, designing for herself a hybrid trouser-dress that would allow her to ride astride, and daring, against all native warnings, to scale Mauna Loa, the world’s largest volcanic mountain, in 1870.

The Sandwich Isles showed Bird the true extent of her mettle, and gave her the confidence in her endurance that would see her through the adventures of the next three decades, as she pushed through extremes of temperature and elevation in her sixties that positively leveled male traveling companions of half her age. She seemed to herself, to borrow Ben Edlund’s phrase, well-nigh invulnerable, and that confidence fueled her next adventure, as she left the Sandwich Isles after nine months of exploration there, passed briefly through San Francisco and thence immediately to Colorado, where at Estes Park she found an ideal combination of daily occupation, natural grandeur, hard living, and colorful characters to satisfy her need for complete mental and physical stimulation. A rugged one-eyed desperado fell in love with her and she, so it seems, fell in love with him but did not allow herself the luxury of giving into her feelings.

In the Rockies, she and her trusty horse explored the snow-blanketed landscape, and experienced what might have been the last sliver of true American frontier, with its combination of eccentrics, fortune hunters, misanthropes, criminals, and plain lost souls. As she had in the Sandwich Isles, she depicted everything she experienced in voluminous terms to her sister Hennie back home, letters which would then form the basis of her best-selling books, and which captured the daily life of disappearing strata of civilization - the corners of islander life as yet not subsumed under European imperatives, the slogging struggle of the luckless frontiersman out of place at the beginning of a new age, all recorded with an eye to the stuff of everyday life that escaped the mention of more sensationalist travel-writers, but that today form a rich and unique glimpse into the anthropology of fading social groups as they stood in their last unsure moments.

The books Bird wrote upon returning home again, Six Months in the Sandwich Isles (1874) and A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains (1879), established Bird as one of Britain’s preeminent travel authors, adventurers, and natural observers. She conveyed an enthusiasm for people and their culture, yes, but also for plants and geological formations that made her works equal parts natural history, cultural observation, and exciting narrative. Rocky Mountains in particular was a sales phenomenon and a critical success that Bird never quite matched again in terms of combining personal interest with grand scale description.

Having completed her accounts of her time in the Americas, Bird determined it was time for a change of venue, and so she turned in 1878 to the corner of the world that would consume her for the next decade of her career, eastern Asia. She visited Japan and compelled her guides to take her beyond the beaten path, up to the island of Hokkaido where she observed the lives of the Ainu, a people indigenous to the island who had but loose connections with the Japanese who theoretically ruled over them. Turning from Japan, whose Buddhist principles disturbed her orthodox Christian sensibilities, she traveled to the Malay peninsula, moving by river from sodden British outpost to sodden British outpost, experiencing at first hand the patchwork varieties of British rule and misrule there while dutifully recording the explosion of natural life all around her.

Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1880) and The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither (1883) were written and published under the pall of the death of Hennie, Isabella’s beloved sister, and the recipient of all her ecstatic reports from the world over. The loss was a fundamental one from which Isabella never truly recovered either emotionally or professionally. As a writer, lacking Hennie as a trusted correspondent to amaze and astound meant that her future trips were recorded with less personal interest and verve, and the books she produced from those trips were correspondingly more bound to the factual than the personal, which audiences found reduced their innate charm.

As a human being, the loss of Hennie in 1880 caused Isabella to rethink the fundamentals of her life. Hennie had devoted her life to tirelessly improving the situation of unfortunate individuals in her immediate environs in an example of steady self-sacrifice that Isabella felt herself unable to live up to. She began to wonder what her life had really been about and, in her most self-critical moods, she found that, while her sister was constantly giving of herself to help others, she had been consuming the resources of others to entertain herself. She attempted to fill her deceased sister’s role of charity organizer and local patron, but her heart was not in it, which led her to believe even more determinedly that she was essentially simply not as good a person as her sister, and maybe could never be so.

During Hennie’s last days she was doctored by John Bishop, an Edinburgh physician who had come to know Isabella in the 1870s when he gave her botany lessons that she intended to use to deepen her reporting of native flora in future expeditions. He fell in love with Isabella, but she refused to countenance the idea of tying herself down with any individual until she saw how purposefully and selflessly Bishop devoted himself to the care of her sister. The two were married in 1881 on the understanding that she would be free to leave and travel wherever the urge came upon her, and that her heart was entirely given over to the memory of her dead sister, and could never be completely his. Bishop would be allowed to act as a source of comfort so long as he would not expect any manner of true, romantic love from Isabella and, to him, that was enough.

The marriage was not destined to be a long one. Bishop came down with the skin and lymphatic disease erysipelas after treating a patient, and thereafter his health deteriorated steadily, causing him to shed weight and lose strength as he was packed off to a series of ineffective treatments that did little to improve the quality of his life or put off the arrival of his death in 1886. The bitter irony of it was that Isabella, who had entered the marriage believing herself incapable of truly loving Bishop, found herself falling more in love with him the sicker he got and the more cheerfully he bore up under his illness, so that his loss was ultimately a blow just as grievous as the loss of Hennie some short six years before, and once again left her to ponder the question of what she had done with her life. To the guilt of not being a pillar of charity like Hennie was added the guilt of not being a pillar of medical aid like Bishop, and Isabella resolved to study medicine in preparation for her future journeys, which would combine travel with the establishment of mission hospitals in Bishop’s name.

In practice, over the course of the next decade Bird’s adventures leaned increasingly towards travel into parts unknown rather than hospital resource coordination. In Kashmir she endowed a John Bishop Memorial Hospital in 1889, but when an opportunity availed itself of traveling through remote sections of Persia and Kurdistan, Bird leapt at the chance to immerse herself in an entirely new set of cultural ideals, and though her reports of the daily routine of women in rural communities at the time are invaluable time capsules, her evaluations of Persian cultural and especially religious life are irrevocably tinged by her innate beliefs in Christian supremacy and her basic opinion, often stated upon returning to England, that the world will be a better place the sooner everybody is converted to Christianity.

At sixty-three, Bird undertook an expedition of three-years duration that saw her moving back and forth between Japan, Korea, and China at an explosive moment in their mutual history, the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war that saw the rise of the modern Japanese military as it bulldozed its way over antiquated Chinese forces to claim increasingly unstable control of Korea. Bird stood as a sympathetic witness to these events, as a friend of the Korean Queen who was murdered by occupying Japanese forces, and as a chronicler of the traditional ways of life in rural Korea and China that were fast disappearing in the 1890s’ onslaught of modernity. She gamely travelled to deeply remote Chinese villages where the dislike of foreigners was so intense that she was pelted with objects as she rode through the streets, and even once had to board herself up in a room against a mob of villagers yelling that they would break through and kill her (she was ultimately saved at the last moment by the command of the local mandarin).

For all those moments of tight-chested dread, however, she appreciated what she called the “grooviness” of rural Chinese culture, by which she meant its resolute sticking to the well-worn grooves of the past, and her book on her travels in China, The Yangtze Valley and Beyond (1899), would go on to be a valuable book for those seeking to understand China in the midst of the Boxer Rebellion.

Isabella Bird passed away in 1901 after two years of doctors regularly telling her that her demise was imminent. Her life was one of extremes - virtually unbreakable into her seventies in the pursuit of adventure, and victim of a symphony of debilitating symptoms when at home, she had borne and seen more than virtually any woman of her time, but in all of those travels she was never anything but the proper and religiously sound (if somewhat sartorially rumpled) Victorian lady she had been raised to be. Her books had their faults - unlike a Gertrude Bell whose atheism allowed her to approach other cultures and religions as basic models of humanity to be evaluated on their own terms, Bird’s mission-boosting Christianity could not help viewing other civilizations and beliefs on the scale of how closely they did or did not approximate the system of the New Testament. But her descriptions of nature, geology, and geography (which earned her, after much bickering, admission as the first woman fellow of the Royal Geographic Society), and her recounting of people carrying out the minutiae of lifestyles destined to disappear in the steady advance of modern civilization, are windows into a world past that are still rightly valued, and her example of fearless self-confidence in the face of the unknown is one there will always be value in cherishing.


For decades, Anna Stoddart’s 1906 The Life of Isabella Bird was the standard biography. It was a very prim and proper book that showed Bird as a lady adventuress fully within the bounds of all proprieties based on Stoddart’s personal acquaintance with Bird and an analysis of her public writings. That remained the prevailing picture until 1970, when Pat Barr’s A Curious Life for a Lady: The Story of Isabella Bird harnessed Bird’s original letters to her sister to discover the full scope of her early adventures and the full depths of her self-doubts and depressions. It’s a little hard to come by, but between the description of the now vanished cultures in the remote locations she travelled, and the insight into Bird’s character and motivations, it’s a tough one to beat.


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