British playwright Caryl Churchill’s award-winning drama Top Girls premiered in London in 1982. The play begins with the main character, Marlene, hosting a [possibly imaginary] dinner party to celebrate her promotion at work. Her guests are five famously strong women from history – some real (Isabella Bird, Pope Joan, Lady Nijo); some fictional (Gret, Griselda).
Alumnae Theatre Company member Diane Forrest, a writer and editor, has researched the guests who appear in the play. Here’s the last of her five profiles, featuring Victorian-era world traveller Isabella Bird, who is portrayed onstage by Lisa Lenihan.
Alumnae Theatre Company previously staged the play in our 3rd floor Studio space back in 1996! The new production of Top Girls is directed by Alysa Golden, and will run on the Mainstage from January 18 – February 2, 2019. Tickets are available at https://www.alumnaetheatre.com/tickets.html
Making Wonder Woman, Lara Croft and Buffy look like wimps
If you’re making a list of the coolest Victorian women, Isabella Bird is right up there — riding huge stallions through the desert, reporting from war zones, and bunking down and escaping from burning buildings.
English traveller Isabella Bird (1831-1904) – travelling “as a lady”
Like many intelligent girls living in repressive 19th century Britain, Bird suffered from a variety of physical problems. Fortunately she came from a forward-thinking family. (Her father, an Anglican minister, was pilloried for suggesting labourers should have a day off on Sunday.) So when her doctor recommended a long sea voyage, and her father gave her £100 to do whatever she wanted, Bird hitched a ride with her cousins to North America, and caught a better illness – the travel bug.
The bug became a career for Bird when she turned her letters home into a book, The Englishwoman in America. From there she moved on to Australia, Europe, the Rocky Mountains, Russia, Tibet, Malaya, etc., etc. During an early voyage to Hawaii, she climbed volcanoes, wore trousers and learned to ride astride, which put an end to her backaches. She went on to ride through blizzards, win the love of a one-eyed mountain man named Jim Nugent, (murdered not long after he proposed to her) and explore forbidden areas of Japan, She often travelled alone or with men – rather shocking for a Victorian lady, but it didn’t hurt her sales. She did return home from time to time (often suffering bouts of illness when she did). But she could never stay in one place for long. She did manage to marry a doctor, but he only lasted for five years.
After his death, Bird studied medicine so that she could travel as a medical missionary. She went on to found two hospitals in India, speak before Parliament about atrocities in the Turkish Empire, report on the Sino-Japanese war, and survive mob attacks in China. She was also the first woman to be admitted to the Royal Geographical Society and, since her many books were illustrated by her own photos, joined the Royal Photographic Society. After travelling to Africa, she died in 1904 at the age of 73.
For more info, including a discussion of Isabella’s clothing choices, see http://www.cordella.org/isabella-bird-bishop/
For more info on the cast of Alumnae Theatre Company’s new production of Top Girls (Jan 18 – Feb 2, 2019) and special events, please visit https://www.alumnaetheatre.com/top-girls.html