And to be more precise, she actually travelled the world in 72 days.
Born on May 5th 1864 as Elizabeth Jane Cochran, Nellie Bly was an extraordinary woman for her time. Daughter to a modest labourer, Bly quickly became a fiercely determined and hard working individual. She became a journalist after an overtly misogynistic column in the local paper, Pittsburgh Dispatch, caused her to respond with an edgy rebuttal. This rebuttal impressed the editor so much that he offered the writer to join the paper. Upon discovering the fact that the writer was in fact a woman, the editor went back on his word and refused to give Nellie the job. Due to Nellie’s earnest spirit, she eventually persuaded the editor in giving her the position. Like her female contemporaries at the time, the editor advised the female writer to use a fictional pen name, thus creating the name ‘Nellie Bly’ after the popular song at the time by Stephen Foster. As a journalist, Bly quickly climbed the ranks of journalism to become a successful professional. Her most well known expose on the harsh conditions of mental asylums is in fact widely believed to be the first practice of investigative journalism.
The idea of to follow the footsteps of the fictional Phileas Fogg came about suddenly one day after she was swamped on work and randomly thought to herself
‘”I wish I was at the other end of the earth!”
It was from that very insignificant moment that the seeds of the idea was planted and quickly grew. During a Monday meeting with the Editor, she presented her idea of travelling the world in under 80 days, which was promptly dismissed with the excuse simply being:
‘”It is impossible for you to do it…In the first place you are a woman and would need a protector, and even if it were possible for you to travel alone you would need to carry so much baggage that it would detain you in making rapid changes. Besides you speak nothing but English, so there is no use talking about it; no one but a man can do this.”
One can’t blame the Editor for his decision though; this was after all a different time in regards to women liberation. A reason such as not being able to speak a foreign language however is hardly an excuse to stop oneself from travelling!
An embittered Nellie fiercely responded by stating that if the Editor ever sent anyone else in her place, she would promptly resign and join another newspaper willing to allow her to pursue this journey.
This idea was left to stale for a while until a full year after this meeting, Bly was given only a day to prepare for her epic journey ahead. After a rocky start which involved sea-sickness, Nellie Bly set off eastward from Hoboken, New Jersey at 9:40am on November 14, 1889. Racing through England, France, Brindisi in Italy, the Suez Canal in Egpyt, Colombo in Sri Lanka, the Straits Settlements of Penang, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan.
On her travels, she experienced all the delights and life-changing experiences that come with travel. She had managed to have afternoon tea with Jules Verne and his wife in Amiens, France; deal with idiotic passengers from the aristocracy on her train journey to Italy; and even purchased a monkey in Singapore.
Arriving in San Francisco, two days behind schedule, Nellie Bly returned home in New Jersey on January 25th, 1890 at 3:51pm – Seventy-two days, six hours, eleven minutes and fourteen seconds after her departure, effectively beating Phileas Fogg by 8 days.
Concurrently while Bly was undertaking her journey eastward around the world, Elizabeth Bisland, from the lesser known magazine, Cosmopolitan, was also sent to challenge Fogg’s record but in a westward direction. Where Nellie Bly was bold, brash and quite the modern fiercely independent women for her time, Elizabeth Bisland couldn’t be any more different. She was more of a typical traditional lady of the time: refined, proper and full of social elegance. She would however ultimately lose the race around the world when she critically missed her train ride in Southampton, England. Bisland eventually did not arrive until 5 days after Bly on January 30th, completing her journey in 76½ days – still ahead of Fogg’s fictional record mind you.
Although Bisland didn’t win, the journey was said to have changed Bisland, broadening her outlook in life and the world and also instilling a deep love of Japan and its culture.
“There are women living as beautiful as any of the marble Venuses; there are even men as pure and high-minded as Galahad; there are Edens in existence – perchance, somewhere, there is something nearly resembling Paradise – and certainly the enchanting fairy dreams of our childhood, ravished from us by the cruel misrepresentation of our elders, have an actual existence, yet more fantastic and delicious than our baby minds could ever have imagined, in these islands lying hard by the coast of China.”
I can’t say this enough but the efforts of these two inspirational women must be applauded. These were two women who were travelling the world unaccompanied at a time where it was truly ‘a man’s world’. This was a time where even women’s suffrage in America hadn’t even taken place yet. Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland are prime example for the female readers out there that require that extra push to overcome their fears of solo travel. These are two archetype strong female characters from different social backgrounds that prove that anyone at any time can do anything they desire if they truly put their mind to it.
So here we are: Two vastly different female characters, two different routes around the world, but one journey that would change their lives. Be inspired by them for they lived in a very different time where the thought of travel was a far fetch idea for a woman. If these women could race each other around the world in the mid-1800’s, then what’s really stopping you from riding a 26-hour plane ride to the other side of the earth?