Friday, June 12, 2015

Classic #16

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015, category “Classic by a Woman.”

Among the Tibetans – Isabella Bird

Isabella Bird, the Victorian spinster traveler, wrote classic travel narratives such as A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains and Unbeaten Tracks in Japan. Both are lengthy insightful books about very different places, flowers, trees, food, and people. Her writing is plain, pointed and honest, calling to mind letters in an agreeable conversational tone.

For readers into flora, she is especially good with flowers and trees. She was lucky to be there in June, 1893:

But for a brief fortnight in June, which chanced to occur during my journey, the valleys and lower slope present a wonderful aspect of beauty and joyousness. Rose and pale pink primulas fringe the margin of the snow, the dainty Pedicularis tubiflora covers moist spots with its mantle of gold; great yellow and white, and small purple and white anemones, pink and white dianthus, a very large myosotis, bringing the intense blue of heaven down to earth, purple orchids by the water, borage staining whole tracts deep blue, martagon lilies, pale green lilies veined and spotted with brown, yellow, orange, and purple vetches, painter's brush, dwarf dandelions, white clover, filling the air with fragrance, pink and cream asters, chrysanthemums, lychnis, irises, gentian, artemisia, and a hundred others, form the undergrowth of millions of tall Umbelliferae and Compositae, many of them peach-scented and mostly yellow. The wind is always strong, and the millions of bright corollas, drinking in the sun-blaze which perfects all too soon their brief but passionate existence, rippled in broad waves of colour with an almost kaleidoscopic effect.

Her cultural attitudes, by our strict post-modern standards, are predictably insensitive and ethnocentric. But aside from prejudice she will boast in a disagreeable way about her toughness.  She brags, “I did not suffer from the climate, but in the case of most Europeans, the air passages become irritated, the skin cracks, and after a time the action of the heart is affected.” Of a storm she writes:

My baggage, which had arrived previously, was lying soaking in the sleet, while the wretched servants were trying to pitch the tent in the high wind. They had slept out in the snow the night before, and were mentally as well as physically benumbed. Their misery had a comic side to it, and as the temperature made me feel specially well, I enjoyed bestirring myself, and terrified Mando, who was feebly 'fadding' with a rag, by giving  [the horse] Gyalpo a vigorous rub-down with a bath-towel.

I’m all for seeing the humor in all situations, but “Their misery had a comic side to it” seems callous, even in a clergyman’s daughter.

This book is very short because it doesn’t provide the detail of the two books mentioned above. I would recommend it to readers into Tibet or short travel narratives, but because it is perfunctory, it’s not her best work.

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