Eighty Days by Matthew Goodman
When I was a but a wee lass (or, to be more specific, the wombat that walked as a girl), there were a select few philosophical conundrums I chewed on constantly. The concept of mortality occupied much of my time, but, in my considerations, I occasionally expanded to extreme distances. The idea that I could go all the way right and end up right back where I started boggled my (metaphorically) little head. I’d forgotten about these recess ponderings until I ran across Matthew Goodman’s Eighty Days. Initially, I picked it up because c’mon, lady reporters racing around the world in the late 1880s! But reading it, it reminded me of those recess ponderings—in a good way.
Eighty Days tells the remarkable story of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, who both wrote for New York newspapers in the late nineteenth century. Despite their similar occupation, the two women couldn’t be more different—pugnacious and working-class Pennsylvian Bly is known for daring undercover exposes and championing the underdog in The World, while genteel and elegant Louisianan Bisland writes poetry and literary columns for The Cosmopolitian (you know which one I’m talking about). But when Bly successfully pitches a story idea that will require her to travel around the world in less than Jules Vernes’ famous eighty days, Bisland’s editors, on the day of, ask her to do the same, leading to a race around the world that’ll make history—but for who?
Well, “race” is a bit of stretch—Bly didn’t even know about Bisland until halfway through her trip, and Bisland, ever the genteel Southern lady, never referred to it as such. But you just can’t buy how perfectly the two women contrast against each other, especially when you have their own voices to compare each other against. At first, I was a bit thrown by Goodman’s more novelistic descriptions of places and emotions, but, at the end of the book, he thoroughly cites every single detail. This makes for a singularly engaging style that doesn’t compromise historical accuracy (as much as I can suss it out with my lack of experience in the field). At one point in Bisland’s journey, she travels on a train that, when pushed to its limit, almost runs off the rails; the way Goodman renders it, I actually gasped out loud. Throughout the book, Goodman alternates between Bly and Bisland, as well as expanding upon subjects of historical interest (such as the standardization of time in America, which is fascinating), but it all flows beautifully. Nonfiction, especially long-ranging nonfiction like this, can be hard to make engaging, but Goodman succeeds here.
I don’t know if Bly or Bisland ever identified as a feminist, but, naturally, two women earning their living in the male-dominated world of periodicals and traveling around the world by themselves is definitely on the “women are people too” side of the political spectrum. The book necessarily has to take a feminist-leaning slant. The young Bly even testified in her mother’s divorce trial, and the article that put her on the map was looking at the issue of women in newspaper writing, where she encountered a particular kind of patronizing sexism that barred women from anything but society writing (which both Bly and Bisland did for some time). Bisland, raised in a strict household in a decaying Antebellum mansion, kept her constant reading of adult and difficult texts to herself and only confessed to her literary ambitions after her poetry was published and she was mistaken for an elderly, male, and British ex-patriate by the publication’s editor. (Elizabeth Bisland: LIVING THE DREAM.) There’s also the interesting thread of Bly being framed as an ideal of an American girl—plucky, self-sufficient, pretty, and kind—and the backlash against her actions in the aftermath of the trip (a lecture tour, writing bad fiction, marrying a dude forty years older than her and running his business into the ground…) As for Bisland? She wrote At the Sign of a Hobby Horse, a collection of essays including an examination of heroines in fiction, as well as a collection called The Truth About Men and Other Matters, which also ponders sexism. Let me put it this way: I don’t know if Bly, Bisland, or Goodman would identify themselves or this book as feminist, but it’s essentially a matter of semantics, not politics.
But Bly and Bisland combat sexism only to fall under the spell of imperialism. Bisland is more explicit about this than Bly, with her open admiration for Britain’s empire. Reared on British poetry—Goodman references this a lot—she’s delighted to travel in style without seeing anything wrong in the oppressive system that enables her to do so. There’s a very interesting point made about the American South identifying with Britain on the basis of a shared rigid class system, so we might expect this from Bisland, although it’s certainly disappointing. But Nellie Bly? Champion of the working class who once proposed traveling to Europe in steerage to see what immigrants have to face? Goodman points out every opportunity she has to investigate steerage or the plight of the stokers whose labor was made worse by her presence on board (given her need for speed), and how she utterly ignores them. Goodman doesn’t let either of them away with this, even as he focuses on their achievements and their travels. And that is the mark of the true historian—not only comprehending people different from us, but celebrating their good while not letting them get away with their bad. The story itself is gripping enough; the treatment it’s given is clear-eyed and objective (as a person can be).
A note: I read this as a digital book galley, and the way it was rendered was particularly hard on my eyes. I hope the published digital book edition is different; if not, well, I recommend the print edition.
Bottom line: You can’t buy the adventure and tension in Eighty Days—two lady reporters traveling around the world seeking a world record? Sold! The story’s engaging, the writing gripping, and the treatment—how Bly and Bisland are praised for combating sexism and denigrated for ignoring classism and embracing imperialism—is as clear-eyed as you can get. Well worth a read.
I read this digital galley for free on NetGalley.
Eighty Days will be released on the 26th—tomorrow!