That reckless lady with "the up-to-anything and free-legged air," as she herself described it, ... went breezing about the remote parts of the Asian and American continents for thirty years and became one of the most popular, respected and celebrated travellers of the later nineteenth century. — Pat Barr, Preface.
Isabella Bird. Source: frontispiece to Stoddart. [Click on this and the following images to enlarge them.]
Family background and early life
Isabella Bird was born in Yorkshire on 15 October 1831 to Dora Bird, the second wife of the Rev. Edward Bird, who became the rector of Tattenhall, Cheshire, in 1834. In the December of that year, Isabella's younger sister and close companion Henrietta (Hennie) was born. The family was well-to-do, well-connected and high-minded; they were Evangelical, Sabbatarian, teetotal and firmly anti-slavery: at her grandparents' house, the women abstained from taking sugar in their tea, out of concern for the exploitation involved in its production. Isabella's first biographer, Anna Stoddart, writes: "From her great-grandmother, grandmother, and father Isabella received the priceless inheritance of a soul-hunger and thirst for righteousness, which in her later years was to dominate all that she observed, to vitalise all her convictions, and to culminate in her memorable appeals to Christian England to send out into all the Christless world and bring its unhappy millions to the Saviour" (4). Whatever we think now about the ideas instilled into Isabella during these early years, she herself would never waver from them: they motivated her throughout her life.
As a chid, Isabella was frail, and in danger of becoming an invalid, largely as a result of a spinal condition. She was liable to become depressed, too. But all this had some positive effects for her future: she was encouraged to spend as much time as possible outdoors, soon learning to ride, and to observe and love the natural world; and she taught herself to endure even a high degree of discomfort with patience and courage. Well educated by her mother, she was intelligent and confident. Before long she was holding Sunday School classes for pupils older than herself. By this point, the family had moved several times, partly for her father's health, and partly because of his unpopular views on such matters as Sunday observance. But the Birds were now settled in Huntingdonshire, where they remained for about ten years from 1848.
The first travels
The period in Huntingdon was a key one in Isabella's life: the first operation on her back in 1850 did little for her health, and her doctor felt that she would benefit from a sea voyage. The chance came in 1854, when she accompanied some cousins who were crossing the Pacific. The seven-month tour of America and Canada was "life-changing" (Stowerbridge ix). It resulted in her first book, The Englishwoman in America, which appeared at the beginning of 1856. Based on her letters home, it showed her losing her prejudices as she met her various hosts, and members of the literati like Longfellow, Emerson and Thoreau. From a distance, she was even able to make some teasing remarks about her homeland: Toronto is quite like England, she finds, and, "if anything were needed to complete the illusion, those sure tokens of British civilisation, a jail and a lunatic asylum, are not wanting" (183). Perhaps she would not have made such a remark later, when she cared very much abut the inmates of such institutions. But her candid descriptions went down well. The work was a great success, and "soon both daily and weekly journals were busy with Miss Bird’s book" (Stoddart 39). On medical advice again, and with the intention of learning about the religious revival there, she made a further long visit to North America in 1857. On these trips she never stayed very long in one place "as it was considered that frequent change was the most likely to benefit my health" (qtd. in Stowerbridge xix).
Then came another big change in Isabella's life: the family had spent several summers in the Highlands, where they had been much impressed by the Presbyterians' zeal, and when her father died in 1858 the widow and her two daughters moved to Edinburgh. The next ten years were again fairly settled ones. She busied herself with a whole range of charitable activities, addressing the needs of the poor in Edinburgh itself, and the fisherfolk of the western islands. She also wrote and gave talks in connection with her work. But her health was deteriorating again, and after her mother died in 1868, and her sister decided to go and live on the island of Mull, she set out on her travels once more, sailing for New Zealand, Australia, and the Sandwich Islands in 1872. John Murray, now a good friend, published her Six Months in the Sandwich Islands (full title, The Hawaiian Archipelago: Six Months among the Palm Groves, Coral Reefs and Volcanoes of the Sandwich Islands), in 1875. A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains followed in 1879.
The author's first ride in Perak. Source: The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither, frontispiece.
Then, as Isabella ventured ever further afield, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan appeared in 1880: her obituary in the Bulletin of the American Geographical Society described this as "her first great Eastern Journey." From Japan she sailed to Hong Kong, Guangzhou on the Pearl River, Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) and Singapore, her letters to Henrietta forming the basis of another instalment of travel adventures, The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither, published in 1883, but also written during the "Eastern Journey."
The author in Manchu dress. Source: The Yangtze Valley and Beyond, facing p. 352.
By the time this book appeared there had been other great changes in Isabella's life. The work is dedicated to the memory of Henrietta, who had died in 1880, and in the Preface she pays warm tribute to "the beloved and only sister to whom the letters of which it consists were written, and whose able and careful criticism, as well as loving interest, accompanied my former volumes through the press" (vii). Heartbroken by recent losses, she accepted an offer of marriage, originally made several years before, from John Bishop, the young doctor who had advised her sister. It was a good match, but he too fell desperately ill and died five years later, despite her devoted nursing. Her missionary works at home could not sufficiently alleviate her sadness. Taking a short but very rigorous course of medical training in St. Mary's Hospital, Paddington, from April to July 1887 to prepare her, she set off again. Her travels now took her to Tibet, India, Korea and China, producing Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan (2 volumes, 1891); Among the Tibetans (1894); Korea and her Neighbours (2 volumes, 1898); The Yangtze Valley and Beyond (1899); and Chinese Pictures (1900).
During these years, she founded five hospitals in memory of her lost family members. One she was particularly involved with was John Bishop's Memorial Hospital in Anantnag, Kashmir, which she funded after meeting the medical missionary Dr Fanny Jane Butler, and which is thriving now as a maternity hospital (see "Fanny Jane Butler," and Barr 200). She also began enthusiastically making her own photographic record of the countries though which she passed; gave talks at the British Association on three occasions; and received a singular recognition: in 1892 she was one of the first batch of women to be made fellows of the Royal Geographical Society (see Ireland 15). She also became an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, and an Honorary Member of the Oriental Society of Peking (etc., as she adds on her title page to The Yangtze Valley and Beyond).
The last adventures
Almost seventy now, as if to prove that neither sex nor age was a bar to adventure, in 1901 Isabella next undertook a journey of over 1,000 miles in Morocco, including the Atlas Mountains. She wrote an article about it in the Monthly Review (Vol. 5, October-December 1901), which is more than enough to suggest the many insights she had gained into the culture, including the religious life, the political situation, the mixture of races, and the prospects of the country. She was particularly horrified by the prison system, "the dark and fetid dungeons in which thousands of innocent men live and die."
As elsewhere in her work, Bird's outrage here arises from those unquestioning religious and moral convictions that she had imbibed as a child, and shared with her readership. Whether, in general, this amounts to "complicity" with the imperialist project is a matter of debate — as it is with other Victorian "lady pioneers" like Mary Kingsley and Juliana Hervey (see Lane 91). But there is no denying that she used her pen to alert her many readers to injustices and the needs of others, as well as to give these readers an entry into worlds beyond their own. At the same time, she had demonstrated to them the potential for women at every stage of their lives to be just as resourceful, resilient and influential as men — if not more so. These were no mean achievements. She died in Edinburgh on 7 October 1903, just short of her seventy-third birthday, without having published anything more substantial about her most recent adventure.
Links to related material
Barr, Pat. A Curious Life for a Lady: The Story of Isabella Bird. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.
Bird, Isabella. The Englishwoman in America. London: John Murray, 1856. Internet Archive. Contributed by University of California Libraries. Web. 22 August 2022.
_____. Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan: including a summer visit to the Upper Karun Region and a visit to the Nestorian Reyahs. I. London: John Murray, 1891. Internet Archive. Contributed by an unknown library. Web. 22 August 2022.
_____. Korea and Her Neighbours I. London: John Murray, 1905. Internet Archive. Contributed by the Digital Library of India; JaiGyan. Web. 22 August 2022.
_____. "Notes on Morocco." The Monthly Review. V (October-December, 1901): 89-102 (but no page numbers on the digital source). eAsia digital library, University of Oregon. Web. 22 August 2022.
_____. The Yangtze Valley and Beyond: An account of journeys in China, Chiefly in the province of SzeChuan and among the Man-tze of the Somo territory. London: John Murray, 1899. Internet Archive. Contributed by Robarts Library, University of Toronto. Web. 22 August 2022.
"Fanny Jane Butler."Women in Exploration. Web. 22 August 2022.
Hill-Murphy, Jacki. The Life and Travels of Isabella Bird: The Fearless Victorian Adventurer . Barnsley, S. Yorks.: Pen and Sword History, 2021.
Ireland, Deborah. Isabella Bird: A Photographic Journal of Travels through China, 1894-1896. Lewes, E. Sussex: Ammonite Press/Royal Geographical Society, 2015. (This has an excellent chronology, pp. 228-29, and bibliography, pp. 230-31.)
Lane, Christopher. "Fantasies of 'Lady Pioneers,' between Narrative and Theory." Imperial Desire: Dissident Sexualities and Colonial Literature. Eds. Philip Holden and Richard J. Ruppel. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. 90-114. (Recommended, although Lane focuses on Mary Kingsley.)
Middleton, Dorothy. "Bishop [née Bird], Isabella Lucy (1831–1904), traveller." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition. Web. 22 August 2022.
Obituary: Death of Mrs Isabella Bishop (Isabella L. Bird) Bulletin of the Geographical Society. 1904-01-01: 765. Internet Archive. Contributed by Jstor. Web. 22 August 2022.
Stoddart, Anna M. The Life of Isabella Bird, Mrs Bishop. Internet Archive, Contributed by the Wellcome Institute. Web. 20 August 2022.
Strowbridge, Clarence C. Introduction. My First Travels in North America, by Isabella Bird. Mineola, New York: Dover, 2010. ix-xxv. (This has a useful basic bibliography).
Created 22 August 2022