by Matthew Goodman

Review

In November of 1889, two women left New York in opposite directions, each hoping to beat Phileas Fogg's fictional record for the fastest trip around the world. Nellie Bly was a moderately famous undercover "girl reporter", one of the first women to break into the actual news aspects of newspaper work rather than languishing in the ill-paid society pages as most women reporters were forced to do. Elizabeth Bisland, perfectly content with the more "feminine" type of writing, gained the respect of literary society by writing thoughtful reviews on books and poetry. In Eighty Days, Matthew Goodman lays out the story not only of the two women's very different styles of travel, but also of the gender, class, and racial inequalities they would have encountered both at home in the States and abroad in England's vast global empire.

Eighty Days focuses primarily on Nellie Bly, partly because of her relative prominence in history and partly because it was her idea to attempt the feat in the first place. This lessened my enjoyment of the book considerably, as I found Bisland's attitudes and style of travel much more compatible with my own; Bly's attitudes and style of travel did little more than irritate me, focused as they were on patriotism and the finish line rather than the trip itself. Still, Goodman spends a fair portion of the book describing what life was like for people across race, class, and gender boundaries. He has asides about elite New York society, the world of newspaper work, conditions for European steerage passengers, the conditions for  the stokers working in the pit of each steamship, and a rather horrifying aside about the racial discrimination of Chinese workers in the Western US. Terrible as some of the things he describes are, they color the book with things I previously had only the vaguest idea about and in the end and made me want to do more research of my own about life in that era and the women featured in his book.

 

 

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