Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Unconventional Life Of Isabella Bird

Isabella Bird was a Victorian lady born to middle class parents in 1831 and she had always been sick. She had back pain, headaches, weak nerves and insomnia. At the age of 19 she was operated and a tumour was removed from her spine. Due to ill health, she was unable to attend school but nevertheless, received quite a decent education from her parents, and by the doctor's advice she spent a lot of time outdoors and learned to ride a horse and row.

In spite of what Wikipedia calls "a narrow Evangelical education", the girl was interested in a variety of political and economical subjects and amused herself by writing articles for newspapers. Yet her health wasn't improving and the doctors urged a sea trip. At the age of 23 she was sent to visit her American cousins and since that time she basically led a gypsy life with some exceptions till she died.

Despite being an oppressed Victorian woman living practically in the Dark Ages, Isabella managed to write books, climb mountains, study nature and ride through the American prairies in a man's saddle. She managed to do all these things while wearing cumbersome Victorian outfits and threatened to sue the newspaper which stated she used to dress like a man.

Though every woman supposedly "hits a wall" after 35 and could better die already, Miss Bird was quite popular with men and at the age of 42 became involved with a notorious American outlaw Jim Nugent who liked "violence and poetry" (a strange combination if ever was) but her common sense told her that though he was the man "any woman might love" he was also one "no sane woman would marry". So she chose to leave and he was shot dead a year later.

However, it wasn't all. When she returned to UK another man fell in love with her and he was about 10 years younger, independently wealthy and pursuing the career as a surgeon. Isabella, poor thing, had been feeling sick the whole time during these shenanigans and decided that her health demanded she travelled to Japan, China, Korea and the rest of Asia.

Her sister Henrietta, who was NOT sick, stayed home and in the meanwhile, died of typhoid. This sad event prompted Isabella, 50 at that time to finally accept her doctor friend and thus they were married. Her health deteriorated right away ( I personally think it was due to her finally having to do some housekeeping) but though her husband was much younger and healthy, he died after only 5 years of wedded bliss and left her all his money which was a lot.

Now Isabella, being a true Victorian lady, decided that she had to do something in memory of her dear late husband and started studying medicine. By the time she finished her studies, she was nearly 60 but that didn't stop the indomitable Mrs Bishop. She went to India where she established a hospital and named it after her deceased husband.  Later on she joined a group of British soldiers and visited Iran, under the protection of the commanding officer.

Isabella became so popular with her books and her photography that she was made the first lady member of the Royal Geographic society  and the sultan of Morocco gave her a black stallion as a present.

She finally died at the age of (nearly) 73, and despite being continuously sick she had travelled all over the world which proves that life is often stranger than fiction. And that's the story of Isabella Bird. Read more about her at Wikipedia.


  1. What an interesting lady, Sanne'!

    Considering her limitations (chronic illness and her sex), she achieved so much in her lifetime. She also displayed great wisdom in not marrying the violent poet!


  2. Housewife from FinlandApril 6, 2016 at 9:10 AM

    Well that was really something. Does this prove, that (wealthy) women have always been able to do what they have wanted? But most women have chosen to stay at home?

    I gogled her and she looked like real bad ass for a woman... She was neither skinny nor pretty. But she has great dignity in her poise, like women used to have. Maybe men are not quite as picky as we have been told, when it comes to the looks of a lady -or her age.

  3. Christine, she sure is/was!

    Housewife, keep in mind that until the 19th century it was basically unsafe for anyone to travel far, even in their own country. There were highwaymen, pirates and what not and ladies ran an additional danger of being violated sexually.

    The moment men made it safe for women to travel they started doing it, if they had time and money.

    As for her pictures, I thought she was already quite old, may be she was prettier when younger? Also, Victorians were an idealistic bunch and believed in soul mates:)

  4. Come to think of it, at times I do suffer from back pain, weak nerves, headache and insomnia but I doubt my husband would be thrilled to sponsor my travels to Japan and Australia:)

  5. I think of some unconventional womenna and it wasn't money or fame that drove them - it was a passion, eg, Harriet Tubman, Amelia Earhart and Condoleeza Rice. Passion is a fierce driver.

  6. So her notorious boyfriend was a poet with a preference for violence. Not strange at all when you considee the prophet David of the Old Testament. I find it fascinating that after battles with His enemies he escaped to caves amd wrote the Psalms.

  7. Lydia, I think he was a type we come across in old Westerns, you know the one who always shot first until he didn't:)