Review

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World

by Matthew Goodman

On November 14, 1889, two women set out to do what was once thought to be impossible: make a trip around the world in 80 days or less. The idea was taken from Jules Verne’s classic novel, AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS, in which Phileas Fogg takes a fantastic and imaginary journey around the world, arriving back home in 80 days. Verne contended that a person really could make such a trip in 80 days or less.

Elizabeth Jane Cochran, who went by the pen name "Nellie Bly," wanted to try. She presented her idea to the editor of The World, a newspaper printed by Joseph Pulitzer in New York City. After much thought and consideration, Nellie not only came to the conclusion that a person could make it around the world in 80 days, she also believed that she could complete such a journey in as few as 77 days. She would travel by boat, train and personal conveyance east from New York. Her editor turned down her idea for two reasons: first, the paper was not ready to send anyone on a journey around the world (although they had been considering it); and second, if they were to do so, they most certainly would not send a woman as they believed only a man could accomplish such a feat alone. But nearly a year later, Nellie was sent a message from the editors saying that they wanted to send her on a trip around the world. So, on that big day, she set sail on the Augusta Victoria on the first leg of her journey.

"Before reading EIGHTY DAYS, I was not familiar with this historic event, but I certainly am now. I’m not a great history buff, but I do like to read intriguing stories, even if they do pertain to real-life events. And this is one such story."

Unbeknownst to Nellie, Elizabeth Bisland, a journalist for Cosmopolitan magazine, left New York on a trip around the world by train en route to San Francisco, to complete the first segment of her journey. After the announcement was made by The World, Pulitzer decided to make the adventure a race and a competition to see who could get around the world the fastest. Elizabeth’s trip was to be much the same as Nellie’s, with a couple of different stops, only in reverse: Nellie traveled east to west, while Elizabeth went west to east. As expected, neither woman’s trip went as planned; both ran into many roadblocks and unexpected events along the way.

While the two never met or knew anything about each other, they were similar in many ways. They were both journalists, each married wealthy men, neither had children, both did volunteer work overseas during World War I, and both died from pneumonia in the same month of the year. Although their deaths were five years apart, they were buried in the same cemetery.

They certainly had their differences, though. Nellie was quite adventurous and sought the limelight. She wanted to be known as a pioneering female journalist, and went about doing so by going undercover and exposing fraud. Although Elizabeth was a journalist, she preferred to write literary book reviews and short stories.

Nellie’s father had been a fairly wealthy man, but when he died, her mother was left with practically nothing as he had no will and most of the estate went to his former wife and her children. Nellie’s mother remarried, but it was an unhappy union that ended in divorce. The two spent many years living practically hand-to-mouth. Nellie was determined to make a living for herself so she would never be dependent on a man. Elizabeth, on the other hand, grew up on a Southern plantation. Although the family was forced from their home during the Civil War, Elizabeth never experienced quite the sense of deprivation and desperation that Nellie did.

Nellie despised the British and just about everything they stood for, whereas Elizabeth embraced the Brits and their ways and claimed to be proud of her Anglo-Saxon heritage. And when they departed on their respective journeys, Nellie took only one piece of luggage with her while Elizabeth took several.

Matthew Goodman does a wonderful job telling this fantastic story. He alternates between Nellie’s and Elizabeth’s stories, paralleling the two along the way. When the race is over, he follows up with more details concerning their separate lives. Goodman has conducted a tremendous amount of research, providing the reader with detailed footnotes as well as an extensive bibliography.

Before reading EIGHTY DAYS, I was not familiar with this historic event, but I certainly am now. I’m not a great history buff, but I do like to read intriguing stories, even if they do pertain to real-life events. This is one such story.

Reviewed by Christine M. Irvin on March 1, 2013

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World
by Matthew Goodman

  • Publication Date: February 26, 2013
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345527267
  • ISBN-13: 9780345527264