The High Flier: Isabella Lucy Bird (1831–1904)
Photograph by The Art Gallery Collection / Alamy
“The Vale of Kashmir is too well known to require description,” writes 19th-century English adventuress Isabella Lucy Bird in her travel narrative Among the Tibetans. That such a statement could be made in 1894—let alone in the present day—is testament to the long reach of the greatest Victorian lady traveler. While the British Empire swept across continents, Bird migrated to far-flung places, many of which barely register on a traveler’s radar even today. She documented her journeys in detailed books with matter-of-fact titles such as Six Months in the Sandwich Islands (1875), A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains (1879), Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1880), and Korea and Her Neighbors (1898). In recognition of her round-the-world peregrinations, Bird was inducted as the first woman Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society in 1882.
At times, it seems as if Bird were on a one-woman mission to increase global tourism. Born to a worldly Anglican minister, the sharp-witted young writer suffered from depression, insomnia, and a spinal tumor as a child. In 1854, upon a doctor’s recommendation, Bird’s father gave her a hundred pounds and his blessing to travel as long as the money lasted. She spent the next six months in North America, a journey she documented in her first book, The Englishwoman in America (1856). From then on, she was wedded to the road, and her travels included Canada, Scotland, Australia, Hawaii, the Rockies, Japan, China, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, India, Tibet, Persia, Kurdistan, Turkey, Iran, and Morocco. Bird forded raging rivers on horseback, endured deadly heat and frigid cold, ascended mountains, crossed deserts, slept anywhere she could, engaged with the locals, and recorded geographical, cultural, political, and social details that have added to our knowledge of the world. Bird even ventured into matrimony, at age 49; her husband noted that he had “only one formidable rival in Isabella’s heart, and that is the high Table Land of Central Asia.” Bird lectured, wrote, and traveled nearly to the end of her life, spending six months on horseback riding through Morocco’s Atlas Mountains in 1900. When she died at 73, she was planning a return trip to China.