Isabella Bird

All quotations and info are from Barbara Holland's They Went Whistling.

Okay, so Isabella Bird. Born in 1831, she was an odd mishmash of your stereotypical uptight Victorian spinster and Indiana Jones. She wanted to see the world so badly, but was crippled by her sense of convention and duty to her parents. She didn't want to be seen as a frivolous or unladylike woman who traveled all over the world having adventures just for the heck of it, but she loathed being in England. Much like Empress Sissi, Isabella developed psychosomatic symptoms whenever she was home. "England made her sick. She was a dutiful person who felt that traveling just for the fun of it was sinful; but whenever she went home, she became a chronic invalid, sleepless and in constant pain. Whenever she left it, her health was wondrously restored" (121).

Look at that face. That is a face that needs a Valium and a plane ticket to Rio during Carnivale.

She had been a sickly child, and it seems that the No. 1 prescription for any health issue (after brandy, of course), was travel. "At eighteen, she had a spinal tumor removed and the doctor sent her to the Scottish Highlands to convalesce" (121). I'm not sure what doctor says, "You've just had major surgery, so go be cold and damp on a mountain", but I guess he knew his business better than I do, because it totally worked. She got to see some new sights and went hiking and rode the Loch Ness monster like a sandworm, and had a good, old-fashioned haggis-filled hootenanny. And then she came home to Cheshire and immediately felt like crap again.

DOCTOR: How are you feeling now that you're home from Scotland, Isabella?
ISABELLA: *cough*
DOCTOR: Vague sickness? Quickly! To Canada!!!

So she traveled over 6,000 miles in Canada and the U.S., came home, wrote a book about it, and then a year later, was "sick" again. Back to America she went. But then her father died and she had some misguided notion that she should settle down, and England was the only place she could do it. So she came home and tried to write articles on religious matters and forget all about that sinful traveling, but it was kinda hard to be God's vessel when you're all hopped up on laudanum in order to manage your extreme pain.

Her mother died, but Isabella decided to stay in England and be miserable to appease her parents' ghosts or something.

DOCTOR: How's it going, Isabella?
ISABELLA: *hack, wheeeeeze*
DOCTOR: Hmm. Maybe you should go take another trip?
ISABELLA: No, I can't. Must be good . . . must do my Victorian duty . . .
DOCTOR: Oh, for the love of . . . I'm a doctor, here is a totally legitimate prescription for happiness. Take six months of Hawaii and call me in the morning.

While there, she climbed volcanoes and got some vitamin D, and learned how to ride a horse properly, not just side-saddle. "She seems to have left Hawaii, finally, simply because she was too happy there and having too much fun . . . her clergyman papa probably disapproved of excessive pleasure" (123). Thankfully some good sense managed to work its way through that thick bonnet of hers. She left Hawaii, her happy place, but did not go back to England.

Instead she went to Colorado, which, for her, was the bomb-diggity. She discovered all sorts of fun things to do. "She could round up cattle; she could kill intrusive rattlesnakes with a kitchen knife. She could catch and saddle a horse and ride it for twelve or fifteen hours through deep snowdrifts, up and down ice-glazed slopes, into the ink-dark night where she couldn't see her horse's ears in front of her" (123-4).

Colorado was probably the best place she could be, because it allowed her to explore and be tough, but not be too pleased about it–she absolutely LOATHED Americans, who made her "suffer" enough to assuage the guilt she felt for having a good time. Americans were "scoundrels and churls. American children are, like their parents, "cankered by greed and selfishness" and shrewdly dishonest, brought up as they are in an atmosphere of "greed, godlessness, and frequently of profanity" . . . Mormon women are "ugly and their shapeless blue dresses hideous."" (124).

And while she was on a roll, hating everyone, she said "The Americans will never solve the Indian problem till the Indian is extinct . . . The only difference between the savage and the civilized Indian is that the latter carries firearms and gets drunk on whisky" (124). Wow. Isabella Bird: England's Goodwill Ambassador.

The only people she allowed herself to actually like were newly arrived English settlers, because nothing says "I love seeing the world" like hardcore ethnocentrism. But she was never really a people person anyway (you don't say???), so she mostly just went out and enjoyed the beauty of the Rockies, only coming into town once in a while to fill her loathing quota, because Jesus wanted it that way.

Then she heard about a place called Estes Park, which was a vast, unsurveyed piece of land that is probably roughly the area we now know as Rocky Mountain National Park. You could only reach it by horseback  and no one ever went there except verrrry seasoned hunters and trappers. She decided she wanted to climb Long Peak in Estes Park, and immediately set out to find a guide.

What she finds is a man named Mountain Jim Nugent, who was a local celebrity. "Apparently he suffered from bouts of depression and drink, or perhaps just temper tantrums, known locally as his "ugly fits," when it was safest to avoid him" (125). So she just goes right up and knocks on the door of his shanty and when he answers, she discovers that he isn't some horrible American, like she had imagined–he has a magnificent English accent. In addition, she learns that  "a grizzly bear has gouged out one of his eyes and disfigured that side of his face, but his brow is "magnificently formed," his curls golden, and his profile is nobleness itself" (125-6). Not that she would ever admit it to herself, but somewhere deep in her spinster knickers, her inner Pam Poovey came out, took one look at Mountain Jim, and went "Sploosh". (Too much? That might be too much.)

MOUNTAIN JIM: Who the hell are you? What do you want me to do?
ISABELLA: I'm a prim spinster woman who wants to climb Long Peak and I need a guide.
MOUNTAIN JIM: Is this a prank? Who's doing this? Was this Toothless Pete or Sweaty Donald's idea?
ISABELLA: No, I'm for real. Look at all the books I've written on all of my adventures. Look at me ride my horse for half a day without tiring. Look at me trek through a tornado filled with cholera without complaining! I, like you, am the perfect combination of English reserve and Wild West boldness.
MOUNTAIN JIM: Oh my god. Sploosh.
ISABELLA: Shit, I think we're in a Katherine Hepburn film.
MOUNTAIN JIM: Or any of its relationship derivatives.

The two of them go up Long Peak successfully. Around the campfire at night, he recites poetry and they discuss Very Deep Things like childhood and feelings and crap, but no decorum is ever broken, nor is the topic of their potential relationship even approached. You could cut the sexual tension with a freaking chainsaw.

After they get back from Long Peak, she's having way too much fun with Jim, of which Jesus would surely disapprove, so she's like, "Thanks for guiding, byyyyyyyyyyyye" and goes to explore on her own for a while. But she couldn't stay away for too long. She runs out of money and has nowhere to stay, so she moves in with two young hunters at a lodge in Estes Park. Oh, and Mountain Jim happens to be staying around there as well, tra la la, never even crossed her mind, what a total and unplanned surprise.

They spend a lovely month constantly visiting each other. She reads extracts from her books and it reduces him to tears. He reads her more poetry. Finally, her money comes through and it shocks her back to reality; she realizes it would no longer be appropriate for her to stay so close by if she can afford to be elsewhere. It must have been Jesus who wired her a few dollars: "Here's some money, stop flirting" So Jim guides her back to civilization.

"She urges him to give up drinking; they muse on what might have been, but it is too late, too late. She never saw him again. She later wrote, "He is a man whom any woman might love but whom no sane woman would marry," and she was right, of course. He was shot and killed in a land dispute the following year" (128).

She went home again, published another book, and found herself being pursued by a man named John Bishop, who she wasn't particularly interested in.

DOCTOR: Hey, Isabella, I hear that you're being courted by John Bishop.
DOCTOR: Oh. I see. Say no more. I'm going to write you a prescription for Asia, 'kay?

So she goes China, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. She stayed there for ages, but then her sister rudely died, dragging her back to the UK. Bishop pursued her relentlessly and she was so broken up over the death of her sister and her typical "I don't deserve happiness" complex that she married him.
"*Sigh* I could have been with Grizzly Adams, kids. Don't make my mistakes."

She got sicker and sicker, but thankfully he was the one who died six years later. She finally came up with the brilliant idea to combine Jesus and travel, and became a missionary in India, Persia, Turkey, Morocco and several other places. After 13 years of non-stop travel, she came back to the UK, where it finally managed to kill her.

The moral of the story is: Jesus ruins everything.

The end.

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3 Responses to Isabella Bird

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