Victorian Era Solo Woman Traveler and Adventurer: Isabella L. Bird

full length image of an elderly Isabella Bird, after she retired from being a solo woman traveler

Are you a solo woman traveler looking for an inspirational role model? Isabella Bird may be that woman. I recently reviewed a book, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, that is a collection of letters written by Victorian era traveler, Isabella L. Bird during her trip to Estes Park Colorado in 1873. Indeed, she was a solo woman traveler in the 1870’s. During the middle of the prim and proper Victorian era, Isabella had the wanderlust more attributed to women of today.

Ms. Bird took to trains, wagons, horses and foot to explore the Wild West and even climb Longs Peak, a summit over 14,000 feet high. She rode 3,000 miles on horseback to explore the Front range of the Rocky Mountains. This was one remarkable woman.

Solo Woman traveler Isabella Bird in her Hawaiian riding costume

A depiction of Isabella Bird in her “Hawaiian riding dress”. She generally eschewed riding sidesaddle and mounted astride like the men of her era.

“For the benefit of other lady travelers, I wish to explain that my “Hawaiian riding dress” is the “American Lady’s Mountain Dress,” a half-fitting jacket, a skirt reaching to the ankles, and full Turkish trousers gathered into frills falling over the boots,—a thoroughly serviceable and feminine costume for mountaineering and other rough traveling, as in the Alps or any other part of the world. I. L. B. (Author’s note to the second edition, November 27, 1879.) 

Isabella L Bird, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains

Vivid imagery

Isabella describes the conditions she lived in, sometimes sharing a 2-room cabin with several rather crusty gentlemen in vivid detail. The hostel of her time. Her words and phrases are composed in proper Victorian style, but with a wry sense of humor that hints at much unsaid. Her companions and guides were men with illustrious pasts. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall (or horse) during her adventure.

She traveled with one modest carpet bag of clothing that required constant repairs. Her previous destination had been Hawaii, and she describes her Hawaiian riding outfit with intricate detail. I think the drawing I found leaves much to the imagination. The clothing she wore in tropical Hawaii is the same she wore in the fall and winter in the Colorado Rockies. She describes some pretty extreme cold experiences. But she never faltered.

While always knowing she would return to her beloved England, Isabella found much to love in her destinations. Except for Sacramento, CA and Cheyanne, WY — those two towns (at the time) she had no nice words to describe.

She found bothersome other British tourists who complained and criticized their host countries. Her curiosity and openness to explore and experience without judgement comes through in every word she writes. Her observations are keen and lyrical, be they descriptions of scenery and people or the culture and politics of the time.

More to read, by and about Isabella Bird

I have added a larger collection of Isabella Bird’s writings to my Kindle and will be reading them when I need encouragement during my own solo travels.

I have also added this biography of Bird to my To-Be-Read list.

Victorian Era Solo Woman Traveler and Adventurer: Isabella L. BirdA Curious Life for a Lady by Pat Barr
Published by Faber & Faber on July 23, 2015
Genres: Travel, Essays & Travelogues, Biography & Autobiography, Women, Adventurers & Explorers
Pages: 356
Buy on Amazon

If you are a solo woman traveler or just enjoy adventure and travel, either in real life or from your armchair, Bird’s adventures will likely enthrall you as much as her contemporary readers.

“Oh! To be beyond the pale once more, out of civilization into savagery? I abhor civilization!”

Isabella L Bird

May your travels be as full as adventure as Isabella’s.

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