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.

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