One for the Books

Jesmine Cham

In 1872, a wealthy gentleman wagered he could circumnavigate the globe in less than three months. Over a decade later, an ambitious reporter aimed to beat his record by five days. The former scenario might ring a bell; it’s the famous novel Around the World in Eighty Days. But the latter is a true story. The reporter was Nellie Bly, who sought to recreate the fictional journey in 1889, and she wasn’t the only one who took up the challenge. Elizabeth Bisland, a fellow journalist, embarked on her own globe-spanning trip at the same time. Their remarkable—and at times perilous—voyages are recounted in Eighty Days (Penguin Random House) by Matthew Goodman. Impressively exhaustive in its research, the book spends equal time with the women in alternating chapters that highlight their journeys amidst the social, political and technological progressions of the late nineteenth century. As a reader, it’s easy to get swept up in the sensation of their race. You can understand how this epic feat captivated the public at the time, earning daily news coverage and sparking a wildly popular contest to guess the precise date and time of Bly’s return home. So, it’s rather surprising that this adventure, made all the more extraordinary for having been undertaken by two women during the 18s, was never given the silver screen treatment (there was a musical, a made-for-TV movie and a Drunk History episode). Then again, no film could do the story justice. Reading about Bly’s and Bisland’s journeys means you get the pleasure of imagining all the colourful and unbelievable moments: a mad dash through moonlit streets to catch a departing vessel, hanging on for dear life aboard a steamship being tossed through rollicking waves—and picking up a pet monkey halfway around the world. That’s a detail even Jules Verne himself couldn’t make up.

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