I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2016.
The Englishwoman in America – Isabella Bird
The most famous Victorian woman traveler and I go way back together. I’ve enjoyed her narratives A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains (1879), Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1880), and Among the Tibetans (1894). I’ve even read an “in her footsteps” book about Hokkaiko, Adventures in Japan.
I had thought this book was written on the same trip as and slightly before Lady’s Life in the late 1870s. But in fact this book is her first book. It was written in the middle 1850s when Bird was in her early 20s and recovering from surgery on her spine (yikes, imagine the risk, back then).
I imagine that the fact she was in some degree of pain during this trip explains her sometimes acerbic censoriousness about the good-hearted denizens of The Land of the Free. But she saves most of her ammunition for travel by steamboat and rough coaches of various kinds driven by half-drunken drivers.
She’s quite young to be so priggish too. In the later books, she’s more mellow and less apt to coat opinions with religion. She is also impressionistic and obscure as to her route – it is impossible to figure out how she made her way from one place to another. She knew a lot about botany and some of geology but little of geography.
I liked her snippy but perceptive comments about my fellow Americans because 19th century Americans were, in my opinion, conceited about being the most enlightened lovers of liberty. Considering they lived in one of the last countries that had legal chattel slavery, I think they had a nerve thinking they were so exceptionally free. She is not as heatedly critical of the “peculiar institution” as Charles Dickens in American Notes but she makes her points and moves on to descriptions of places and people. Maybe she was wary of all the hell Americans gave Dickens and Mrs. Trollope (Tony's ma) after their cutting books. Bird is especially good with hotels - American hotels at that time had no counterpart in the world.
And she’s wary about too much democracy. She spent time in New York City at a time when Know-Nothings and Catholics were fighting. She writes:
For three days a dropping fire of musketry was continually to be heard in New York and Williamsburgh, and reports of great loss of life on both sides were circulated. It was stated that the hospital received 170 wounded men, and that many more were carried off by their friends. The military were called out, and, as it was five days before quiet was restored, it is to be supposed that many lives were lost. I saw two dead bodies myself; and in one street or alley by the Five Points, both the sidewalks and the roadway were slippery with blood. Yet very little sensation was excited in the upper part of the town; people went out and came in as usual; business was not interrupted; and to questions upon the subject the reply was frequently made, "Oh, it's only an election riot," showing how painfully common such disturbances had become.
Those nonchalant New Yorkers.
I should say that in addition to eastern and Great Lakes states, she spends time in Canada. She uses terms that are unfamiliar to us today. For instance, Upper Canada is our present-day Ontario. Quebec was Lower Canada. She says very nice things about Canada, though she’s narrow-minded about Indians and French speakers.
This book is long, slightly more than 300 pages, so it may be more than a reader is looking for. I liked it because I liked the author’s fearlessness, astute observations, and readable style.