Title: Eighty Days
Author: Matthew Goodman
Published: February 26th, 2013
A non fiction book that sometimes reads like Victorian speculative fiction, Eighty Days tells the true story of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, two Americans who at the end of the nineteenth century raced against time (and against each other) to try and set a record for the fastest trip around the globe.
I have of course read Verne’s Around The World In Eighty Days, but I’d never heard about Nellie Bly, so I was excited to discover how the fictional character of Phileas Fogg influenced this very real race. Since this is not fiction, there are no shipwrecks or daring rescues or police chases; but the hazards of nineteenth century travels left just enough suspense that until the last few chapters I was left wondering how it would all turn out. Plus, being females and also real people, Bly and Bisland are much more interesting characters than Phileas Fogg.
Bly was a female journalist at a time when people thought women were only good for writing gossip columns and such. She started her career with an expose of the appalling conditions in mental asylums, and went on from there. Bisland was a more conventional woman journalist, at least outwardly. She was originally from the South and wrote poetry and literary reviews. From the start, their opposing characters make for a good story, with Bly pestering her editors to let her try to make this record journey around the world, and Bisland reluctant to go because of the “vulgar” publicity that she would receive.
Though I didn’t know anything about the subject beforehand, it’s obvious that the author did his research. In reading a novel about historical characters there’s always the doubt: can we be sure that they thought this? did they really feel that way or is the author making it up? Goodman draws extensively from Bly’s and Bisland’s own accounts, and from other period sources, and every line of dialogue is annotated in the appendix. In this regard, he was very thorough.
…Which brings me to my only complaint about the book, but it’s a bit one. In his zeal to paint a complete picture of this world race, Goodman goes off on endless tangents. There are pages and pages about famous characters who are somehow related to the story, like Jules Verne who aside from writing Around The World met Bly when she was passing through France. If Bisland stopped to have lunch at a hotel, the dining room is described, as well as the waiters, plus of course the food, and then there will be a digression on the town and its climate and its people and whatnot.
At first I enjoyed the asides about New York and the publishing industry, because they helped set the story in a place and time I am not very familiar with. But after two thirds of the book they started to become wearisome. I realized at some point that I was reading a lengthy account about the medical problems of Joseph Pulitzer, who was in the book only because he owned The World, which was the newspaper Bly worked for… And I couldn’t care less about Pulitzer’s sensitive nervous system.
So I skipped that bit, and all other digressions I didn’t care about, and I managed to finish the book without falling asleep. There’s just too much stuff in the book, which could and should have been edited out. If it physically pained Goodman to leave out the details about the house where Pulitzer lived, he could have put all that extra info in an appendix. The story of Bly and Bisland and their race is very compelling, but all the extraneous information weighs it down unnecessarily.
Overall, a solid book, but since he quoted him extensively Goodman might as well have taken Pulitzer’s advice and cut some of the unnecessary digressions.