Guest Post: Isabella Bird: A Lady’s Life Breaking Boundaries

The nineteenth century was a fantastic decade for scandalous women, as more and more strong-minded, early feminists were stepping out of their male counterpart’s shadows to make their own names on the world’s stage.

In literature, this decade saw Mary Shelly galvanize readers with her controversial thriller, “Frankenstein,” and the Bronte sisters tear at the heartstrings of many—albeit not under their own names. However, one female writer from the 1800s overstepped so many of her
assigned gender roles at the time that publishing under her own name was probably one of the least controversial of her actions.

Isabella Bird was one of the most outspoken and daring adventuresses of her time, and although her first book was published anonymously, her age-old classic “A Ladies Life In the Rocky Mountains” proudly bore her birth name in all its feminine glory.

Early Outcry

Born Isabella Lucy Bird in 1831 to a devout Reverend in a small town in Yorkshire, she was known from an early age as having a smart mouth and quick wit. Reports have surfaced of an eager young Bird, fearlessly questioning an MP during his campaign trail, "Did you tell my father my sister was so pretty because you wanted his vote?”

It was this genuine interest and curiosity in the ways of the world that propelled her forward with eager drive and soon became her defining feature after long-term poor health brought complications to her life that she could have never imagined.

In reality, this illness was a pivotal moment for Bird, as the family doctor recommended fresh air as a cure for her ailments. Leading to the beginning of her traveling life, this instigated several summers spent in Scotland, followed by a trip to America, which was pre-empted by a sizable donation from her father and a weary warning to not come back until it was spent. It seemed her sharp intelligence and opened minded nature was all too much for her humble evangelical home life.

Overcoming Obstacles

Early accounts of Bird’s poor health described her as frail, a chronic insomniac, sufferer of stress headaches and several problems with her spine. Later on, a tumor was removed from around this area but her health problems still continued into later life.

Despite the fact that traveling with these constant discomforts must have taken its toll, the wandering adventuress had been bitten by the travel bug, and from here on, things were only set to become more epic.

Her next solo voyage took her to Australia, before quickly returning stateside to visit the tropical island of Hawaii. Here, she wrote her second book “The Hawaiian Archipelago” and spent her time hiking some of the greatest mountains in the area. It wasn’t until she heard that the air in Colorado, then a newly formed state, was incredibly healing for the sick and infirmed that she packed her bags again and set off on perhaps the most prominent adventures of her life.

The Rocky Mountains Years

One of the most notable images of Bird depicts her in practical, male influenced clothing, straddling a horse, with no shred of consideration for this being improper or unladylike. For most, this is a beautiful metaphor of the strength, character and delightfully controversial nature of this poignant early feminist.

Her time in the Rocky Mountains was documented, and later published, via a series of letters between her and her sister. Her tone in the writing is one of pragmatic wonder, describing her surroundings with enthusiasm and poetic vigor. Her recounts of the problems she faced along the way are tackled with levelheaded sensibilities, and her lovingly open-minded descriptions of the now-famed mountain man, Jim, is a testimony to the true uniqueness of Bird’s character and her wonderfully free perspectives on all that she encountered.

Her Scandalous Later Life

After her adventures in the Rockies, Bird was not done. She traveled to Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam and Singapore, never once letting man nor mind slow down her global gallivants. It wasn’t until the heart-breaking death of her beloved sister, Henrietta, that Bird finally succumbed to one of her many suitors and married Dr. John Bishop.

From this point, her health took a dramatic turn for the worse, and she was indefinitely grounded, until the death of her husband and subsequent heritage fund seemed to be enough to inspire her to pack a suitcase and tie up her traveling boots for once last time.

It’s hard to say whether the conditions of her marriage had been holding her health back, but one thing is undeniably clear: she was never a woman who was meant to be held down. Free, once again and back on the road, Bird visited India, Tibet, Persia, Kurdistan and Turkey before her swan song journey to Morocco. During these excursions, she set up a hospital, named after and
in memory of her late husband. If nothing else, this shows that the man did hold a special place in Bird’s otherwise wild and independent heart.

On the return from Morocco, her health finally got the better of her, and after seeing most of the world, writing a plethora of classic books and setting up missions and other charitable projects globally, Bird’s inspirational life came to an end in the comfort of her own home in England in 1904.
 Get Her Work

Amazingly, Kindle owners can download all of Bird’s works for no charge from the Amazon-based store. However, for users living in the Middle East or some of the world's more conservative countries, the titles may be blocked as some of their content can be viewed as controversial. Kindle Fire users can get around this by installing installing a VPN such as IPVanish on their device, which is a handy bit of software that allows you to gain access to all content, no matter where in the world you are.

If you're don't own a Kindle, then paperback copies are also available from Amazon, or you can download the PDF for free from
this site.

 About the Author: Isa is an entertainment blogger and an avid reader and passionate feminist. She loves the inspiring women of the nineteenth century and the way they paved the way for the modern world!


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