Introduced by Dervla Murphy
Isabella Bird’s brutally honest account of her solo voyage along the Yangtze River remains a valuable record of a long-gone way of life in a country radically altered by time.
‘Her admiration for the country and its people shines through.’
Isabella Bird was the most remarkable female traveller of the nineteenth century, and her subsequent travel books have become classics of the genre. Famed for extraordinary journeys which would be impressive even by today’s standards, her expeditions culminated, aged 65, in her seven-month solo exploration along the Yangtze river in China in 1896. Journeying from Shanghai to Somo, Bird completed much of the expedition in a traditional junk, sharing the same hardships that beset her hired crew: hunger, cold and loneliness. Her no-holds-barred account of this ground-breaking voyage remains unsurpassed to this day.
Following just thirty years after the end of the Second Opium War and the opening of China’s ports by British forces, foreign visitors were certainly not always welcome. Frequently verbally and physically attacked, Bird writes freely of the fear she experienced and recounts an incident when she was chased by two thousand angry, stick-wielding locals crying ‘Beat her! Kill her! Burn her! Another occasion saw her sitting astride a stool in her room, armed with a pistol that she was fully prepared to use for self-preservation; but Bird was also at times welcomed and treated without suspicion, able to provide stunning depictions of towering mountains and vast rivers, tranquil villages and ornate palaces.
‘To get deep water we were often close under the right bank, and had the divertissement of being pelted with much and with such names as ‘foreign devils’ and ‘foreign dogs’.
Bird was elected to the Royal Photographic Society in 1897 and her book was published two years later, offering one of the earliest photojournalistic accounts of China at the end of the nineteenth century. From the traditional dress of soldiers and labourers, to the hospitals, villages, guesthouses and temples visited along the route, the images provide a valuable record of China on the cusp of change and under pressure from foreign influence.
‘Isabella Bird, too, was a decidedly purposeful adventurer. Among the most popular travel writers of her time, she was as observant as she was courageous, and often very funny.’
This new edition features over 100 of the original photographs, including some previously unpublished. The selection was sourced from the archives of original pictures, plates and lantern slides held by the Royal Geographical Society and National Library of Scotland. First developed by Bird in her tiny quarters on the bobbing houseboat and washed in the Yangtze river itself, the images have been painstakingly reproduced by Folio to increase clarity and ensure consistency of tone. The original map charting Bird’s route across the Yangtze basin has also been beautifully reproduced in a larger, fold-out scale, and is presented in a corner pocket at the rear of the book.
The first woman to be awarded the Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society, Isabella Bird’s legacy is vast and valuable. The Yangtze Valley and Beyond is an empathetic and observational account: a valuable addition to the history of China and a superbly crafted travelogue. From the widespread use of opium pipes to foot binding among young girls, Bird wrote frankly about her experiences and provided a glimpse into the lives of people in remote villages as yet untouched by the western world.
In a new and exclusively commissioned introduction, renowned writer and adventurer Dervla Murphy, provides an in-depth biographical account of Bird’s extraordinary life: her upbringing, illnesses, personal loss and, most explicitly, her expeditions. The Yangtze Valley and Beyond is engrossing and perceptive, written by a woman who was – thankfully – mindless of the preconceptions and expectations that society had placed on her gender.
Isabella bird (1831–1904) was a British traveller and author. Born to evangelical Christian parents in Yorkshire, she moved to Edinburgh at an early age and was recommended an open-air life owing to her chronic ill-health. Following her mother’s death she moved with her sister to Mull, but despite her sorority devotions was unable to stand the island’s ‘unendurable climate’ and this led to a life of travel. Her publications usually followed each trip and include A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains (1879; Folio Society edition 1988), Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1880), The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither (1883), Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan (1891), Among the Tibetans (1894), Korea and Her Neighbours (1898) and The Yangtze Valley and Beyond (1899). Bird was made a fellow of the Scottish Geographical Society in 1891 and the Royal Geographical Society, to which no woman had previously been admitted, in 1892. She was planning another trip to China when she fell ill and died at her Edinburgh home in October 1904.
Dervla Murphy (1931–) was born in County Waterford, Ireland, where she continues to live. In 1962 Murphy cycled from Ireland to India, via Afghanistan, a journey which would become the basis of her first book, Full Tilt: From Ireland to India with a Bicycle (1965). Her subsequent journeys, often unaccompanied though some taken with her daughter, Rachel, have covered much of the globe. Her other works include In Ethiopia with a Mule (1968), On a Shoestring to Coorg: An Experience of South India (1976), Eight Feet in the Andes: Travels with a Mule in Unknown Peru (1983), Muddling through in Madagascar (1985), The Ukimwi Road: From Kenya to Zimbabwe (1995) and Through Siberia by Accident (2005). Her 1978 book A Place Apart, about travelling in Northern Ireland and meeting Protestant and Catholic communities, won the Christopher Ewart- Biggs Memorial Prize. Her most recent book is Between River and Sea: Encounters in Israel and Palestine (2015).
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