Skip to main content

Bibliophile reviews The Englishwoman in America (travel)

Author: Isabella Lucy Bird
Year of publication: 1856
Genre: Travel, USA and Canada
Time period: Mid-19th century

I have mentioned my love of travelogues before. I don’t just like to read new or newish books about places I would like to visit some day but also about places I have visited and historical journeys. Historical travelogues are especially interesting when they draw up a snapshot of places as they were at a given point in time, even though one always has to keep in mind that travellers often write about what they think they should have experienced or what they think the readers will want to read about rather than their actual experiences. I have a great admiration for the leisure travellers of the past who often went through amazing hardships just to be able to briefly visit a place, and I respect the commercial travellers who sometimes had to travel for many months or even years to get to their destination. Before the advent of aeroplanes and express trains the actual getting there was often a bigger adventure than being at the actual destination. In this particular book even train travel is an adventure.

Isabella Bird belongs to the group of intrepid female adventure traveller that also includes Edith Durham and Alexandra David-Neel. This book is about her first journey abroad, to the United States and Canada, and is revealing not just about what those countries were like at the time, but also about her character and opinions.

The book has its high and low points. Isabella is at her best when describing people and places as she saw them, especially he journeys between places and observations of people and human behaviour. The passages about her visit to Niagara, which was then already a tacky tourist destination, are especially interesting, as are the chapter about her stay on Prince Edward Island, a place I have always wanted to visit ever since I read L.M. Montgomery’s Anne books.

Isabella’s opinions are often quite contradictory – it’s as if she was filled with admiration of the things she saw but felt that expressing only admiration and no criticism was to put down old England, so after each expression of admiration there almost inevitably follows something negative and often a comparison with the old country which she usually declares to be the better place after all. Her descriptions of the hardships of travel are some of the liveliest passages in the book, especially 2 or 3 of her journeys by steamboats across lakes and down rivers, some of which were quite perilous due to harsh weather. Her sense of humour is dry and is never far away, especially when describing people and customs she encountered. She seems to be trying to exude a polished air in her writing, but her enthusiasm and sometimes almost childish joy of travelling shines through and makes the book enjoyable to read.

The low points of the book are the passages and chapters of guide book stuff that are interspersed with her observations: information about the social structure and institutions and descriptions of buildings that she thinks her readers want to hear about, full of numbers and dry facts that were probably of much interest to British readers of the time, but break up the narrative and sound as if she copied them straight from a rather dry guide book or encyclopaedia.

Her almost obsessive dislike of Catholics and the Irish struck me at first as offensive, but as it was repeated more and more often, it made me giggle every time she brought it up, especially when contrasted with her obvious admiration for everything Scottish. She opposed slavery, which was then still in practice in the USA, but the wording she uses when referring to blacks is sometimes quite offensive to a modern reader (for example in one place where she likens a black baby to an ugly little monkey). Thus she reveals her opinions and prejudices to the reader, sometimes quite unwittingly.

Rating: A sometimes entertaining travelogue that gives a snapshot of Canada and the USA as they were in the mid-19th century. Will definitely read more of the author’s travelogues. 3 stars.

Read it online


Popular posts from this blog

Book 40: The Martian by Andy Weir, audiobook read by Wil Wheaton

Note : This will be a general scattershot discussion about my thoughts on the book and the movie, and not a cohesive review. When movies are based on books I am interested in reading but haven't yet read, I generally wait to read the book until I have seen the movie, but when a movie is made based on a book I have already read, I try to abstain from rereading the book until I have seen the movie. The reason is simple: I am one of those people who can be reduced to near-incoherent rage when a movie severely alters the perfectly good story line of a beloved book, changes the ending beyond recognition or adds unnecessarily to the story ( The Hobbit , anyone?) without any apparent reason. I don't mind omissions of unnecessary parts so much (I did not, for example, become enraged to find Tom Bombadil missing from The Lord of the Rings ), because one expects that - movies based on books would be TV-series long if they tried to include everything, so the material must be pared down

List love: 10 recommended stories with cross-dressing characters

This trope is almost as old as literature, what with Achilles, Hercules and Athena all cross-dressing in the Greek myths, Thor and Odin disguising themselves as women in the Norse myths, and Arjuna doing the same in the Mahabaratha. In modern times it is most common in romance novels, especially historicals in which a heroine often spends part of the book disguised as a boy, the hero sometimes falling for her while thinking she is a boy. Occasionally a hero will cross-dress, using a female disguise to avoid recognition or to gain access to someplace where he would never be able to go as a man. However, the trope isn’t just found in romances, as may be seen in the list below, in which I recommend stories with a variety of cross-dressing characters. Unfortunately I was only able to dredge up from the depths of my memory two book-length stories I had read in which men cross-dress, so this is mostly a list of women dressed as men. Ghost Riders by Sharyn McCrumb. One of the interwove

Icelandic folk-tale: The Devil Takes a Wife

Stories of people who have made a deal with and then beaten the devil exist all over Christendom and even in literature. Here is a typical one: O nce upon a time there were a mother and daughter who lived together. They were rich and the daughter was considered a great catch and had many suitors, but she accepted no-one and it was the opinion of many that she intended to stay celebrate and serve God, being a very devout  woman. The devil didn’t like this at all and took on the form of a young man and proposed to the girl, intending to seduce her over to his side little by little. He insinuated himself into her good graces and charmed her so thoroughly that she accepted his suit and they were betrothed and eventually married. But when the time came for him to enter the marriage bed the girl was so pure and innocent that he couldn’t go near her. He excused himself by saying that he couldn’t sleep and needed a bath in order to go to sleep. A bath was prepared for him and in he went and