Monday, December 7, 2020

Ten Days (or so) with Nellie Bly: Two Book Reviews

Book Description: "Nellie Bly's journal of being institutionalized for 10 days. An expose of how the 'insane' were treated." In 1887, journalist Nellie Bly convinced authorities she was insane so she could get the inside scoop on what was going on inside Bellevue Hospital, a local insane asylum for women. She found that many were put there not because they were insane but because they were in the way of their families or were immigrants who couldn't communicate well. Once she was "rescued" by friends and let out, she published her findings which led to reforms and more investigations.

This little book sparked a weeks long reading and research venture on the life of Nellie Bly and Victorian sensational novelists. It's not super well-written--- more a culmination of her notes with a little narration thrown in here and there. I found it difficult to follow chronologically but did feel I got the basic gist once I was done. Very awesome that her undercover work caused changes to be made within the facility and probably others too. After finishing this I couldn't get rid of a nagging feeling that I had another book on her. After a little digging, I found that I did have another---Eighty Days by Matthew Goodman (see below) is the story of her race around the world to attempt to beat Phileas Fogg's time. I read that and learned a ton more about Nellie Bly.

Book Description: "In 1889: Two women, successful journalists and writers, set off in a desperate race in opposite directions, each determined to outdo Jules Verne's fictional hero Phileas Fogg and circle the globe in less than eighty days."  True Story!

I read this on the heels of Nellie Bly's Ten Days in a Mad-House. After finishing that one, I knew the name sounded familiar so I dug through my TBR shelf and, sure enough, I did have this! Yay!

I learned a LOT reading this book, but my main take-away was a reminder that there are many facets to Feminism. I saw a children's book the other day promoting Bly as a Feminist. I'm not totally sure she fits what our culture would call Feminist, but in many ways, she represents the kind of Feminist I would have been in those days. I doubt modern ones who would label her this way have read her take on Susan B. Anthony: "When she met Susan B. Anthony, president of the (National Woman Suffrage) convention, she did not hesitate to tell her that, 'if women wanted to succeed they had to go out as women. They had to make themselves as pretty and attractive as possible.'"

Speaking of controversial topics, I was a little shocked at the behaviour of the boatmen in Egypt who rowed up to the ship to help take passengers to land. They coerced/forced the English passengers into their boats, sometimes violently, and then held them captive in the water for payment. Westerners of those days are now looked down on for their prejudices toward people from other parts of the world, but if stories like these, as well as those about being swarmed by beggars when stepping off the boat, circulated back to home, it's no wonder they took this view. This is definitely barbaric behaviour.

On the other hand, I learned a lot about the British empire, what they did to acquire their empire, and the general arrogance of imperialism. I was not impressed.

There were not nearly as many details about Bisland's trip as Bly's. Perhaps it's because Bisland didn't keep as detailed a diary. Much of the portions of the book devoted to Bisland were padded with related info about someone or something else.

People were shocked that Bly could get by with so little luggage---yet she did have the advantage over Bisland of having some time to think things through. I think it's crazy rotten that Bisland literally had a couple hours between learning she was going to being put on a train. My surprise was with the fact that Bly, this popular reporter known for fighting injustice, didn't report on any of the inhumane issues she saw. Perhaps she was only an advocate when there was a clear safety net nearby.

I spent almost the entire book rooting for Bly, only to be so disgusted by her arrogance and dishonesty at the end that I switched my loyalty to Bisland. I lost quite a bit of respect for Bly---especially when she made up stories that Bisland had attempted to sabotage her. To make matters worse, Bisland's boss later blamed her losing on her inexperience and ineptitude. Poor girl didn't even want to make the trip in the first place!

The book lost me a couple times when it became heavy on the war talk and there were several instances of repeated details, but overall, I really did enjoy reading this and will likely hold on to it for awhile in case I choose to use it with my high schoolers.

My favorite quote was this one describing Bisland's thoughts while riding through the English countryside: "It was a landscape she felt she already knew from books; riding through it she was not learning but remembering." That's how I feel, too, when I'm in England.


  1. That sounds interesting! I'll have to look out for these books! - As for the behaviour of boatmen and beggars in under-developed Egypt... mind you, that was perhaps pretty much the only way for them to get some money from the 'tourists'. The thing is... the natives would never have been able to afford a trip to England, so to them, the English obviously were as rich as Croesus, as they could afford to come to Egypt. Why not squeeze a little money out of them? I'm not saying this is good behaviour, I'm simply pointing out that they felt it was fair to milk the rich and it was a way for them to survive.

  2. Oh yes, I definitely agree with your perspective on their motives. What's more, the expectation that the underdeveloped nation would have the same standards of behaviour as the more developed Britain does show a bit of ignorance on the part of the Empire. :) Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  3. I’m so glad you remembered you had that second book. What great book hoard serendipity! Nellie Bly sounds fascinating. To be honest, there are plenty of countries in the world where you are still surrounded by beggars or people hassling you to buy something, whenever you venture on to the street. Eighty Days does sound like a great jumping point for lots of thought and discussion.
    Sarah Turley,

  4. The weirdest coincidence: because I was thinking of books to read for #DiverseDecember, I had a little book next to my bed about Oprah Winfrey. It was a free giveaway in a Dutch magazine in 1994. I only picked it up to see where the story actually came from because an Australian BookCrosser had reviewed a book about Audrey Hepburn and I’d had a similar freeby book years ago. In any case, I looked inside the back cover and what should I see but an acknowledgment that the text was taken from Oprah! Up Close, m NL and written a

  5. Oops! The perils of posting at 3am. Sorry.
    Oprah! Up Close was written by Nellie Bly! Apparently a pseudonym used by Sarah Gallick. Isn’t that incredible!