Friday, 12 March 2010

Isabella Bird

Isabella Bird was one of the most intrepid and adventurous travellers of the Victorian era. Between 1854 and 1900, she travelled the globe, overcoming poor health and spending "far too many nights in flea-ridden inns". In a century when women were supposed to keep to the sidelines, she went off to dangerous places and wrote a series of successful books about her adventures.

In her early twenties she travelled alone through the United States, then spent the following decades exploring Persia, Japan, Tibet, Morocco, and in her sixties one last great adventure to the Yangtze Valley and the mountain regions of northwest China. She covered a wide field: geography, flora, fauna, trade and the habits and customs of dress of people, including their superstitions and beliefs. Her accounts of China ranged from the etiquette of getting in and out of a sedan, to the 'mannerless, brutal, coarse, insolent, conceited, cowardly roughs of Chinese towns' who lived 'in a state of filth, among odours which no existing word can describe'.

An exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society brings together some of Bird's photographs and drawings with the work of Kiyonori Kanasaka, a geographer and photographer based in Kyoto, Japan, who re-traced her journeys over five continents. OK, it ends on March 12 but hopefully part of the collection will remain on the RGS site.

In November 1892 Bird became the first female Fellow of the RGS, one of 22 women to be elected as Fellows in the following months. However, this innovation in the society's 62-year history provoked an extended salvo of protest from a small but determined group of men, many of them Admirals. One feared the venerable institution would be reduced to the level of "the tea-party and garden-party institutions". On July 3 1893, the resolution that "Ladies are eligible as ordinary Fellows" was put before a Special General Meeting and defeated. The women already admitted were to remain as such but no more were to be elected. The following leader appeared in the Guardian on July 4 1893:

(click to enlarge)

Women were finally admitted almost 20 years later in November 1913. There's a short film about Bird on the National Library of Scotland site.

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