Around the World in Seventy-Two Days
By Nellie Bly
Published by Librivox.org
Read by Mary Reagan
After enjoying Ten Days in a Mad House, much to my surprise, I found I was interested in reading Nellie Bly’s account of her Jules Verne-inspired whirlwind tour of the world. What I got was pretty much what I expected; a light travelogue of the world in the late 19th Century.
Nellie Bly was the nom de plume of Elizabeth Jane Cochran Seaman. She might have started out as a journalist, best known for her sensationalist stunts such as her trip around the world and faking insanity in order to see the inside of the women’s asylum at Blackwell Island, but over the course of her life she was also an industrialist, charity worker and inventor. She may have invented the 55-gallon drum – the patent was in her name although some claim the patent was merely assigned to her, but there is no doubt she did invent two other sorts of cans.
In any case, in 1888, she convinced Joseph Pulitzer into sponsoring her in an attempt to circumnavigate the world in seventy-five days, five days shorter than the fictional record set by Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg. Along the way she accepted an invitation to visit with Jules Verne and his wife and tour various places during lay-overs in Ceylon, Chine and Japan. She was delayed a few times by weather and missed connections, but owing to a chartered train Pulitzer had hired to meet her in San Francisco, she was able to arrive in New York seventy-two days after she left from Hoboken.
While she was racing against the clock, it turns out another woman, Elizabeth Bisland, a reporter from a competing newspaper was racing against her in the opposite direction. Bly first heard about her competition while in China where she was informed that “The other woman” had left several days ahead of her. However, Bisland was still in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean when Bly finished her record setting trip.
Her record did not last long, however, and was broken just a few months later by George Francis Train (whose prior circumnavigation had originally inspired Verne).
Nellie Bly’s narrative of her trip is that of a determined, but delighted young woman (if you consider 26 to be young) out on her own to see the world for herself. I dare say the stories she sent back to Pulitzer’s paper The World, delighted her readers as well as her penultimate chapter is an account of the crowds who came to greet her and the gifts they gave her as she sped across the US on her chartered train.
The book is not a long one and probably worth reading although with my Twenty-first century eye I detected more than a few instances in which a certain 19th Century bias in favor of Western civilization and its amenities were displayed as well as her use of words for people that would be considered impolite in this latter day. I am not sure if that was strictly an American viewpoint of the time or if she was heavily influenced by the Victorian Britons she travelled among much of the way across the Mediterranean and Asia.
The travelogue, as it was, is not really a study of the people she met, merely her observations as she passed briefly among them as a tourist. In many ways, it has more in common with the journeys of Herodotus and some of the other ancient travelogues (both factual and fictional) than with sociological studies that were contemporary with her trip. She noticed the differences and the oddities, but was not looking for what people have in common. Well, the differences are what make such stories interesting in the public, I suppose.
Mary Reagan reads the story wonderfully and captures the notes of delight perfectly. She might have sounded a bit more disappointed where Nellie Bly learns of Bisland’s attempt to beat her around the world – it comes as a surprise to Bly who, up until then, had no idea she was racing against anything but the clock. And Bly’s disgust with the leper colony and the general filthiness she observed in China might have been read differently, but Bly’s own narrative does not really dwell on the more unattractive aspects of the trip – probably would not have been as well received by the public – so maybe Ms Reagan has the right of it.
In all, it was a fun book to listen to, both from Bly’s descriptions and Mary Reagan’s reading.