Beulah Maud Devaney

Book Review: The Life and Travels of Isabella Bird

I started reading Isabella Bird’s travel writing as an escape from grey, rainy, slightly-soul-crushing life in London. Bird was one of the great explorers of the late 19th-century. And she was a woman. And she made some of her greatest trips in her 60s, while suffering from chronic pain. And her writing and photographs of Japan, Korea and China are still referenced by anthropologists today. And she was a fantastic storyteller who could transport the reader to a trapper’s cabin in the Rocky Mountains or a luscious, deadly tropical forest in just a few words.


Basically, she was a badass.


It’s clear that Jacki Hill-Murphy shares my fascination with Bird. The Life and Travels takes a linear path through Bird’s life. From her early travels as an unmarried woman in North America to her adventures in Japan, Malaysia and Pakistan, through to Korea and China in her early-60s. 


Hill-Murphy mainly focuses on giving historical context to Bird’s writing, especially her homelife and relationships with her sister and husband. As she was quite a private person, most of these details were missing from Bird’s writing. While this extra context is interesting (and helps ground the reader), there’s a sad lack of observations from Bird’s contemporaries. Most of Bird’s early writing was done in letters to her sister (later tidied up and turned into bestselling books), however none of her sister’s return letters seems to have survived. There’s also next to nothing from Bird’s official biographer, which is a shame as Bird was clearly a very complex woman and she continued to obsessively travel, despite near-debilitating pain.


Bird was a prolific writer, and, unfortunately, Hill-Murphy seems to have struggled with the sheer volume of source material available to her. Inconsistent use of quotations throughout the book means that it’s not always clear when Bird is “speaking” and when it’s actually Hill-Murphy’s narration. There are also times when Hill-Murphy takes her quest to give the reader context too far. The inclusion of a rather long TripAdvisor review about a tricky pass does make it clear that Bird was attempting journeys in the 19th century that remain hazardous in the 21st century. But I can’t say it added much to the book, or my experience as a reader.


Overall, The Life and Travels of Isabella Bird is an engaging book about a fascinating writer, marred by a limited format and errors that I’d expect the editor to have caught. There’s clearly a lot more ground to cover when it comes to Isabella Bird. For now I’m hopeful that this book will introduce her writing to a new audience of readers and maybe inspire some of them to write their own books about her.

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