Jules Verne was incredibly popular in the late 19th century, with each novel firing the imaginations of people living through the later part of the industrial revolution. As technology was taking a firmer grasp on our lives, his imaginative vision and incredible creativity made him a big topic of conversation. What Verne did really well was imagine a fantastical version of the world people could actually view as possible, much the same way Michael Crichton did a hundred years later. And when he published Around the World in Eighty Days, readers wondered whether it was truly possible to circumnavigate the globe in what seemed like an impossibly short time.
To put this to the test, Nellie Bly, who has been building a firebrand’s reputation in journalism, sets about convincing her editor to fund her attempt to break the eighty day time frame, leaving from New York and traveling east. Though reluctant at first, her force of will convinces him to let her go. by this point she has already made significant headlines for spending ten days undercover at an asylum for women, reporting on the terrible conditions she observed there.
Seeing an opportunity to generate some publicity of their own, rival publication Cosmopolitan enlisted one of their own female reporters, Elizabeth Bisland, to attempt to beat Nellie, sending her out within hours of Bly departing and heading West. Bisland was born to society, unlike Bly, and grew up in a genteel world of privilege. Two differing perspectives of the nineteenth century, neither of which are male, certainly makes for an exciting premise when seeking interesting portions of history to unearth.
Matthew Goodman brings this remarkable race to light in his new book Eighty Days and, dealing with the differences between the women, and the excitement of the journey. He presents the intrigue and tension of each woman’s journey as well as any thriller writer could. He also has done his research, thoroughly documenting their dispatches, during the trip. Nellie Bly was the more famous and more brash of the two, and our awareness of her due to the boldness of her work predisposes us to root for her. As the book goes on, however, we see Bisland emerge as more curious about the larger world, particularly taking an interest in Asia. There were times I wondered if Goodman was revealing a bias towards Bisland, looking to make an already interesting story juicier by playing up Bisland’s interest in the countries they visit while showing Bly as more driven to win than to absorb the world around her. Writing about History always involves taking sides, so it’s understandable Goodman would choose a figure to root for, but aside from this he’s done an excellent job shedding light on an event that captured imaginations at the time, but has faded somewhat since.
Ultimately, any leaning Goodman has one way or the other is a small detail. Overall he’s given readers and exciting and interesting look into the world of journalism, at a time when women taking such a prominent role was exceedingly rare. The success of Bisland and, to a larger extent, Bly, opened many doors for women. This race is a significant reason why, and Goodman’s book is an enjoyable look at their remarkable journey.