Wouldn’t that be exciting to find a stranger has discovered a stack of letters written by one of your ancestors and wants to write a book about her? Matthew Goodman wrote Eighty Days about a historic race around the world that caused great excitement in the late 1800s. Pioneering women journalists Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland both aimed to be the first person to travel around the world in less than eighty days, to break the fictional record of Phileas Fogg from Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days. Feisty investigative news reporter Bly had the idea in the first place, and Bisland’s magazine editor persuaded her to race against Bly going in the opposite direction. Bly didn’t even know she had a competitor until she reached Hong Kong, and boy did she get mad about that.
Matthew Goodman did two years of research before he felt ready to begin putting together the story of these two very different women. Bly worked for Joseph Pulitzer’s The World, the most influential newspaper of the time, and boldly chased after sensational stories, particularly those that exposed social injustice. Bisland was a refined and quiet woman, a poet and essayist, who was literary editor for The Cosmopolitan, an upscale magazine (now known as Cosmo, a very, very different sort of read). Like Bly, though, she was also an advocate for social justice and women’s rights.
While a lot has been written by and about the outgoing Nelly Bly, Bisland shunned the spotlight and after the race went to live in England for a year to escape the height of her fame in the United States. I asked Mr. Goodman how he found enough material to write about Bisland. Besides reading whatever he could find, including a few books she wrote, he discovered Tulane University held a stash of letters she had written, letters Bisland’s own family didn’t know about. Some of Bisland’s descendants are avid genealogists who shared their information and an unpublished family history with Goodman. A great-grandniece let him see other letters by Elizabeth written about subsequent travels. The family is pleased that someone has written all about their amazing but almost unknown relative, to share her historic achievements and open-minded perspectives. My advice, though, is to not hope for a stranger to come along to write about you or your ancestor. Get busy and write, and get it published, too, even if it’s just for your own family.
Anyone who enjoys reading about history, adventure, world cultures, bold women forging their way through male-dominated society, and the complexities of personality (listening to Goodman talk, I thought Nellie Bly a particularly interesting person) should pick up a copy of Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World. While Goodman writes about these women as for a history book, he skillfully intersperses dialog and third-person storytelling to make the book much more pleasant to read than straight history. In his hands, this works. Many details of daily life in the times and the intimate storytelling tell us he had a wealth of letters and historic information to work with. I opened the book to find Elizabeth in Japan so of course I had to buy a copy. Goodman said she loved Japan and returned there in later years. I need to save up for my own visit.