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‘Around the World in 80 Days’: Actual race was run by women

Brooklyn BookBeat: Brooklyn's narrative historian tells the real Nellie Bly story

December 27, 2017 By Natasha Soto Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Matthew Goodman at the River Café. Eagle photo by Natasha Soto

“In Brooklyn, where I live, many older residents remember the late, lamented Nellie Bly Amusement Park (in Bath Beach, right off the Belt Parkway) but little about Bly herself, and even less about the race around the world that made her, for a while, among the most famous women in America. I, too, only vaguely knew who Nellie Bly was when I happened upon a reference to her celebrated race; and I knew nothing at all about her rival Elizabeth Bisland, other than the fact that on that November day in 1889 she had set off around the world as well. Four years ago, I decided to write a book about these two young travelers. It has been, for me, a fascinating and enjoyable journey, and I am deeply grateful to the many people who helped me complete the trip.”

Matthew Goodman’s previous book, “The Sun and the Moon,” followed a widely circulated story in a New York newspaper that convinced readers to believe in the existence of lunar life. To write his latest book, “Eighty Days,” Matthew Goodman returned to Gotham’s newspapers in the 19th century for inspiration. Goodman, a resident of Bay Ridge, wrote the nonfiction book in his characteristic narrative style.  

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While the cast of characters in Goodman’s first novel was all male, his new book follows two female journalists. “After my first book, I knew I wanted to write about women … I was captivated by this story of these two female journalists who raced around the world,” he told the Brooklyn Eagle. “Eighty Days” takes place in 1889-1890, a time where there were very few female journalists.  According to the book, just over 2 percent of journalists in the U.S. in 1880 were women, and those who were working as journalists were usually relegated to covering the society pages.

The idea of only being allowed to write about what was considered the “women’s sphere” offended the book’s protagonist, journalist Nellie Bly. Instead, she became a pioneer in the field of investigative journalism. She feigned insanity and went undercover at a mental asylum for 10 days, worked at a paper factory to investigate the plight of the working poor and trained with a boxing champion for the sake of a good story. Bly pitched the idea to travel the world in less than 80 days, inspired by the fictitious journey in Jules Verne’s novel “Around the World in Eighty Days” to her editor at the New York World. He agreed, and the plan was put in motion.

Eight hours after Bly set off on her journey, the publisher of The Cosmopolitan caught wind of her plan. He sent writer Elizabeth Bisland around the world in the opposite direction to beat her at the finish line. The two trailblazers served as perfect foils to one another in the media — Bly was considered scrappy, hardworking and self-made, while Bisland was considered genteel and elegant.  Communicating with their publishers through telegrams, these writers captivated New York City as they circumnavigated the globe.

A quote from the book reads, “Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland were not only racing around the world; they were also racing through the very heart of the Victorian Age.” Goodman vividly recreates the remarkable race from its frenzied start to its nail-biting finish, with stops in the most exciting locales along the way.  



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