Putting Women Explorers Back on the Map: Interview with Rosemary J. Brown

Photo: David Stanton

Rosemary J. Brown is a journalist based in London and author of Following Nellie Bly: Her Record-Breaking Race Around the World.

Rosemary is an avid traveller and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, where she helped organize the first Heritage of Women in Exploration conference. Her articles have appeared in publications including Harper’s Bazaar, The Washington Post, France Magazine, The Guardian and Inside History. She volunteers with organizations supporting asylum seekers and homeless people.

Talking About Books asked her why she chose to write about Nellie Bly and why it is important to give visibility to women explorers.

TAB: What inspired you to write Following Nellie Bly?

RJB: I discovered Nellie Bly online one day while I was researching female explorers. The more I got to know her, the more I was captivated by this fearless woman who would not take no for an answer despite living at a time—the end of the nineteenth century—when women “knew their place”. 

As a journalist, I was shocked that I had never heard of Nellie Bly—the very woman who pioneered investigative journalism and circled the world faster than anyone had back in 1890. That we had allowed Bly’s achievements to fade from history fuelled my determination to get her “back on the map”.  I decided to re-blaze her global trail to pay tribute to her and others like her—women who burst through social and geographical boundaries to explore, experience and document the world.

TAB: Could you tell us more about Nellie Bly?

RJB: She was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in 1864 in western Pennsylvania. Nellie Bly was her nom de plume because female journalists could not write under their legal names in her era. 

Nellie was the thirteenth of 15 children in a family headed by Michael Cochran, a mill owner and county judge.  She was only six years old when her beloved father died without warning, and without a will, which plunged his once wealthy and respected family into poverty.

The indignity borne by her family forged a determination in Nellie to triumph over tragedy and fight for justice, especially for the most vulnerable. With that searing sense of justice, Nellie thrust open doors usually closed to women.

Her journalism career was launched after an outraged Bly, 19, wrote a letter to the Pittsburgh Dispatch lambasting a column claiming that women belonged at home and certainly not in the workplace. The furious letter attracted the editor’s eye, and he hired Nellie as a reporter.

In 1887 she landed a job at The New York World, one of the most successful newspapers of its time. In her first and most alarming assignment, Nellie feigned madness so she could go undercover in the New York City Lunatic Asylum and expose the barbarity inside. Her accounts and book, Ten Days in a Mad-house, led to sweeping reforms. It was the dawn of a brave, new journalism, and Nellie Bly was its pioneer. Although this for me is Bly’s greatest achievement, her record-breaking race around the world brought her the most acclaim.

TAB: You made your journey 125 years after Bly. What were some of the big changes you found? And were there some things that remained unchanged?

RJB: Like the steamships that sped her across the oceans and seas, I found much of Bly’s world had been erased by time, progress and natural disasters. There are exceptions. I could “see” her in London’s Charing Cross Hotel as she grabbed a quick cup of coffee before boarding the train to Folkestone. She lives on in Jules Verne’s home in Amiens where I joined her in his study. We slept in the same hotel—the Grand Oriental—in her Ceylon and my Sri Lanka. In Singapore we both paid our respects to the statue of Sir Stamford Raffles. We rode the Peak Tram in Hong Kong, and stepped inside the Great Buddha in Kamakura, Japan.

TAB: What were the most memorable moments of your trip?

RJB: At times it seemed like Nellie Bly was by my side. I felt closest to her in Jules Verne’s study in Amiens, France, where she interrupted her world race—and risked losing it—to spend an afternoon with the author who inspired her trip. In Kamakura, Japan, I followed Bly inside the bronze belly of the 121-ton Great Buddha 125 years later.  When a typhoon hit Hong Kong, she seemed to beckon me through 98 mph winds so I could travel to Guangzhou, China, known as Canton in her time.

The most bittersweet moments of my journey occurred when I visited Woodlawn Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, and discovered that Nellie Bly was buried in a pauper’s grave. She died of pneumonia on 27 January 1922, aged 57. With no funds for a proper burial, she lay in virtual obscurity for 56 years until the New York Press Club erected a modest granite headstone. I felt a strong of injustice for Nellie Bly after all she had achieved.

That changed last December when my quest to get Nellie Bly back on the map sent me travelling again, back to New York City for the unveiling of a monumental installation honouring her life and legacy.  Located just steps away from the asylum where she pioneered investigative journalism, the memorial celebrates Nellie Bly’s role in history in a series of remarkable bronze sculptures by Amanda Matthews of Prometheus Art.

TAB: You said you want to put women explorers back on the map. Could you expand on this?

RJB: Women in history shouldn’t be a mystery … and that includes female travellers. Female explorers tend to get left in the “dustbin of history”—abandoned and forgotten. Women such as intrepid explorer Isabella Bird (1831–1904), queen of the desert Gertrude Bell (1868–1926) who mapped out Iraq, and wayfaring biologist Mary Kingsley (1862–1900). Like Nellie Bly, they left their inhibitions at home and journeyed into the unknown alone.

I believe we can find inspiration in yesteryear’s women travellers. They faced far greater hurdles than we do. Bly and others like her didn’t talk about equal rights, they lived them.

Their stories are often lost in time. I want to revive them as daring role models for all. I believe they have a message for us.

TAB: What inspired you to become a writer?

RJB: I am a journalist and an author. I was drawn to journalism because it is the first rough draft of history. It keeps people informed and has the power to expose injustices and bring about reforms as demonstrated by Nellie Bly and many others since her.

TAB: What advice would you give a writer starting out?  

If you want to write, you are a writer. Believe in yourself. Good readers make good writers. Read voraciously and write loads. I am also a great believer in taking writing courses with authors in the genres that interest you most. Good luck!

TAB: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us and especially for reintroducing the world to this extraordinary woman, Nellie Bly. You have put her back on the map!

Read my review of Following Nellie Bly for the website Women on the Road.

Find out more about Rosemary and Nellie Bly on Rosemary’s blog.

3 thoughts on “Putting Women Explorers Back on the Map: Interview with Rosemary J. Brown

  1. Diane stocking

    Thank you Rosemary Brown , love the article and the inspiration on female explorers gaining recognition !

  2. Sophie

    This is a powerful and inspiring interview, Suroor! I’m grateful to authoress Rosemary J. Brown for rehabilitating Bly’s works and courage, and to you, for your ever great literary advice .

    In France, we are very much (and I’m afraid only) aware of traveller Alexandra David-Néel, first women to reach Lhassa, Tibet, and whose travels’ memoirs are still widely read.

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