While Isabella Bird is an icon of Estes Park history, her admiration expands beyond the borders of Estes Park, Rocky Mountain National Park and even the United States. Throughout our journey celebrating the intrepid explorer 150 years after her trip to Estes Park, we have had the privilege of speaking with experts from around the world about her impacts.
Our series of interviews with Isabella Bird experts first led us to Scotland when we interviewed Paula Williams, Curator of the National Library of Scotland. Then, it brought us all the way to Hawaii when we had the chance to sit down with Professor Emeritus, Jackie Pualani Johnson to learn all about Isabella’s Hawaiian adventures. Now, our Isabella expedition brings us to New York with Dr. Kay Chubbuck, Vice President for Education at the New York Botanical Garden.
Dr. Chubbuck has played a pivotal role in educating people about Isabella Bird with her edition of Letters to Henrietta, which was first published in London in 2002, and we had the coveted opportunity to interview her. Her book is a fascinating collection of the unpublished letters Isabella wrote to her sister, Henrietta, throughout her travels. Chubbuck says when she first came across Isabella Bird, she was captivated by the “seemingly fearless woman,” and we couldn’t have said it better.
In this interview, we get a fascinating new perspective on Isabella’s love affair with Rocky Mountain Jim and her younger sister, Henrietta, who may just be the reason we can enjoy Isabella Bird’s writing at all. Plus, we learn about Chubbuck’s impressive accomplishment of transcribing Isabella’s original letters. Read all about it below!
(Pictured: one of Isabella's letters from Estes Park- National Library of Scotland)
How did you first learn about Isabella Bird?
I first encountered Isabella Bird in a used bookstore in Bali, Indonesia, in the summer of 1996. I had just finished my master’s degree at Oxford on 19th-century writers. Yet, I had never heard of Isabella Bird before I happened across a dog-eared paperback of The Golden Chersonese about her travels in Southeast Asia. Reading Isabella’s letters to her sister beneath banyan and jackfruit trees, I found myself captivated by the story of this seemingly fearless woman who traveled the world alone at a time when women were expected to marry young and have children and be “good” wives and mothers. I was fascinated by how and why Isabella could be bedridden at home in Scotland and then could achieve these incredible physical feats like scaling volcanoes in Hawaii and ascending Long’s Peak in Colorado on her travels. I was also very lucky in that her letters were, at that time, still at John Murray Publishers in London, near to where I was studying. (Her letters are now in Scotland.) The archivist, Virginia Murray, was the publisher's wife, and she shared my fascination with Isabella. Ginny Murray was an incredible mentor to me. I will never forget sitting with her in the library at the publishing house and reading Isabella’s letters – written in tiny, cramped writing on tissue-thin, blue paper – in the same room as the fireplace where Byron’s memoir had been burned and at a desk filled with quills used by Charles Dickens.
What was it like to transcribe Isabella’s original letters?
In many of her letters, Isabella used a typical Victorian technique called “crossing,” intended to save postage, which makes them hard to read. Isabella “crossed” by writing first in one direction, then rotating the letter to write over her text in different directions, forming a tight grid on each page. She would repeat the process on the back so that one small, thin piece of paper could hold four pages of her observations written at different angles. Many of her letters are more than 20 pages of this technique. I remember Virginia Murray remarking that while many researchers came to consult Isabella’s letters, few persevered because of the obvious technical difficulties and because Isabella claimed her books were exact transcriptions – so why bother? When I realized there were intriguing differences, I started to read the passages aloud to Ginny Murray – and this resulted in John Murray Publishers asking me to transcribe the letters into what remains the only edition that Isabella herself did not edit.
What made Isabella Bird so remarkable as a woman in the 19th Century?
Isabella Bird was both incredibly unusual and also very much a product of her era. There is actually a whole genre of women writers in the late 18th through the early 20th century who had these incredible adventures that were in total contrast to the staid social norms expected of women’s behavior at that time. Many of these books have evocative titles, such as Kate Marsden’s On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers or Gertrude Bell’s Persian Pictures. Bell became an advisor to King Faisal of Iraq and was a confidant of T.E. Lawrence, known more popularly as Lawrence of Arabia. What was different, though, about Isabella Bird was that she was staunchly middle class. Isabella was not born wealthy, and as time progressed, to continue traveling, she needed the funds from her books. They had to be best sellers if she would go on another adventure. She did not have the same education or social connections as Gertrude Bell, or the scientific training of Kate Marsden. Instead, Isabella was a kind of “everywoman” who found almost accidental fame when the books she published about her journeys turned out to be so successful.
Would you consider Isabella Bird the original Ecotourist?
That is a difficult question to answer because what we consider “ecotourism” did not exist in the 19th century. At the time that Isabella was traveling in the 1870s, it was the height of the British Empire, and Isabella held many colonialist beliefs that would be harshly criticized today. During her travels in China, for example, she was literally carried around in a divan by servants and she used language in her books about people from other countries that would be considered deeply problematic today. At the same time, Isabella had a love of plants – of trees, flowers, local flora and fauna – and she described them in such vivid detail in her writings that one wonders if she would be an environmentalist if she had been born today. In her letters, she writes about pressing flowers and plants, and I wish those specimens had survived as part of the records of her journeys. There is a surprising wealth of scientific information in both her books and her letters, and in future years, she brought along a microscope to better document her botanical explorations.
Do you think it is true that Estes Park was Bird’s favorite place on earth as her book made it seem?
Estes Park, and Colorado in general, was a turning point for Isabella. It was the final stop on a journey that had included Australia and Hawaii. It was the last place she stayed for a significant period of time before returning to Scotland, publishing her adventures, and becoming a successful author. In her letters from Estes Park, Isabella’s tone changes, and she becomes more reflective. She stops just cataloging her journeys for her sister and instead starts to think about publishing, noting in Colorado that “I wish I had arranged about writing my travels so that on returning I might at once begin easy literary work.” In other words, she started writing in Colorado with the goal of turning her letters into books.
Colorado was also, famously, where Isabella met Rocky Mountain Jim, and even though she’d had romantic escapades in Hawaii, those were somewhat humorous and failed compared to what seemed to have been a genuine and powerful attraction to the handsome, one-eyed desperado. Unsurprisingly, she reveals more and writes differently about this relationship in her letters than in the published account. That she felt powerfully about him comes through in the book, though some of my favorite parts of her letters are when she shares the dreams she is having about him (sometimes about him shooting her!) or calls him a “whisky fiend.”
So was Estes Park her favorite place or was it that Estes Park is where she fell for Rocky Mountain Jim? That’s hard to say.
Are there any interesting things we know about Isabella Bird that we could not get from her book?
Maybe because I am a younger sister, the person I always want to know more about is Henrietta – Isabella’s younger sister, to whom her letters were written and to whom many of her books are dedicated. I find myself wondering what it was like for Henrietta back at home in a small cottage on the Isle of Mull to receive these fascinating missiles about climbing Long’s Peak or attending a dinner party with monkeys in Malaysia (really!) and what it was like to open these letters and yet just go on with her ordinary life. From Isabella’s letters, we know that Henrietta asked to travel with Isabella after the letters from Estes Park – but Isabella said no, and to be fair, it would likely have been difficult financially to pay for them both to globe-trot, given their economic status. Still, part of me has a lot of empathy and curiosity for this younger sister, and I wonder, would Henrietta have succumbed to Rocky Mountain Jim? Would she have chosen Colorado? What would Henrietta have done had their roles been reversed? On the flip side, we may never have had such details, particularly from Isabella’s early travels, including her time in Colorado, had there been no Henrietta at home to write to. I have a lot of admiration for both sisters, and the insight they provide about a vanished time is illuminating.
You can purchase used versions of Kay’s edition of Letters to Henrietta through Amazon, Abe Books and other vendors. Find more fascinating interviews with historians and all things Isabella Bird here.
Dr. Kay Chubbuck is Vice President for Education at the New York Botanical Garden. Dr. Chubbuck has over two decades of experience in education management, university teaching, research and publication. Prior to her current role, Dr. Chubbuck oversaw Sotheby’s Institute of Art-Global Online, which included the Hybrid MA in Art Business, the Online Premier program, Sotheby’s Summer Institute, and international partnerships. She has also held faculty appointments at Princeton University, the U.S. Naval Academy, and the University of Oxford, where she earned her doctorate on a Rhodes scholarship. Her edition of the letters of Isabella Bird, Letters to Henrietta, was first published by John Murray Publishers in London in 2002, and was featured in the Summer Reading Section of The New York Times in 2003.