Letters to Henrietta

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Until the middle-aged, unmarried Isabella Bird (1831-1904) left her native Scotland for an independent life of travel, she was debilitated by illness, suffering from "neuralgia, pain in my bones, pricking like pins and needles in my limbs, excruciating nervousness, exhaustion, inflamed eyes, sore throat, swelling of the glands behind each ear, stupidity." Bird was so weak that she required a steel support to hold her head up and spent most of her time confined to bed. Desperate to find a cure, her doctors finally packed her off to the Pacific and Switzerland. Once there, the forty-year-old invalid miraculously recovered, and became determined to seek any adventure that allowed her to see the singular beauty of nature.

In Hawaii, she was the first woman to climb the world's highest volcano; in Perak, she rode elephants through the jungles; in Colorado, she scaled 14,000 foot mountains, spent six months traveling mostly alone on horseback, and fell in love with a one-eyed desperado named Rocky Mountain Jim. But whenever she came home to Scotland, her symptoms returned, making another trip essential. Bird's remarkable journeys took her to the remotest parts of the world and brought her considerable fame. She became the first female Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, advised Prime Minister William Gladstone on the issue of Armenian Christians, and was presented to Queen Victoria in 1893. Her numerous travel writings, including 'The Hawaiian Archipelago,' 'A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains,' 'Unbeaten Tracks in Japan,' and 'The Golden Chersonese,' remain popular today.

In this fascinating collection of Bird's previously unpublished letters to her homebound younger sister Henrietta, one experiences her journeys firsthand and gains insight into the ambiguous private life of a woman who often invented her public face. Containing correspondence from her first two grand tours to Australia, Hawaii, and Colorado in 1872-1873, and to Japan, China, Malaya, and the Holy Land in 1878-1879, 'Letters to Henrietta' provides a fresh view of the legendary Victorian traveler.

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About the author (2003)

Kay Chubbuck is a lecturer in the Writing Program at Princeton University and a freelance journalist. Her articles have appeared in Newsweek, Outside Magazine, and the Baltimore Sun.

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