Literary Friday: Eighty Days

Synopsis according to Goodreads:
"On November 14, 1889, Nellie Bly, the crusading young female reporter for Joseph Pulitzer’s World newspaper, left New York City by steamship on a quest to break the record for the fastest trip around the world. Also departing from New York that day—and heading in the opposite direction by train—was a young journalist from The Cosmopolitan magazine, Elizabeth Bisland. Each woman was determined to outdo Jules Verne’s fictional hero Phileas Fogg and circle the globe in less than eighty days. The dramatic race that ensued would span twenty-eight thousand miles, captivate the nation, and change both competitors’ lives forever.

The two women were a study in contrasts. Nellie Bly was a scrappy, hard-driving, ambitious reporter from Pennsylvania coal country who sought out the most sensational news stories, often going undercover to expose social injustice. Genteel and elegant, Elizabeth Bisland had been born into an aristocratic Southern family, preferred novels and poetry to newspapers, and was widely referred to as the most beautiful woman in metropolitan journalism. Both women, though, were talented writers who had carved out successful careers in the hypercompetitive, male-dominated world of big-city newspapers. Eighty Days brings these trailblazing women to life as they race against time and each other, unaided and alone, ever aware that the slightest delay could mean the difference between victory and defeat.

A vivid real-life re-creation of the race and its aftermath, from its frenzied start to the nail-biting dash at its finish, Eighty Days is history with the heart of a great adventure novel. Here’s the journey that takes us behind the walls of Jules Verne’s Amiens estate, into the back alleys of Hong Kong, onto the grounds of a Ceylon tea plantation, through storm-tossed ocean crossings and mountains blocked by snowdrifts twenty feet deep, and to many more unexpected and exotic locales from London to Yokohama. Along the way, we are treated to fascinating glimpses of everyday life in the late nineteenth century—an era of unprecedented technological advances, newly remade in the image of the steamship, the railroad, and the telegraph. For Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland—two women ahead of their time in every sense of the word—were not only racing around the world. They were also racing through the very heart of the Victorian age.
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Eighty Days explores a subject I knew nothing about when I picked it up, but it's a fascinating one. Two adventuresome, gutsy Victorian ladies set off on an around-the-world race that was documented heavily within their society. The subject is fascinating. The story, which sticks more to facts than fanciful imaginings of the characters involved, reads like a documentary or biography. It isn't dry, per se, but it's a third person narration filled with details as they were noted in the day (and not necessarily things we care about in modern times). 


That's not to say that Bly and Bisland don't come alive on the page- they do! It just isn't a quick read. If you're studying the Victorian era, this truly encapsulates the technological leaps, cultural thinking, and the attitude that anything is possible. We tend to assume all Victorians were stuffy prudes with an overdeveloped sense of the human ego....but this book challenges that.


I recommend it for lovers of truth-is-stranger-than-fiction stories, Victoriana, women (Bly and Bisland are inspiring in their fearlessness and practicality), and history, Victorian or otherwise.

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