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Heroine of Empire

From a tiny office, packed at the top of a cramped building off London?s Portobello Road, the story of one of our greatest female explorers is being prepared.

Isabella Bird was one of the great unsung heroes of the Victorian age of exploration. Despite extensive travels and adventures far from the reaches of the Empire, she battled for many years to become the first female fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) - facing entrenched opposition from the likes of Lord Curzon, who referred to ?globetrotting? women as ?one of the horrors of the late 19th century.?

Margy Kinmonth is the director who will later next year shoot part of Bird?s life for a feature film aimed at international distribution. Kinmonth has made her name in TV directing shows such as the South Bank Show and numerous documentaries. Trained as a fine arts painter and sculptor gives Kinmonth ?a completely different perspective? from many of her contemporaries, she believes.

She says she is interested in strong female characters, ?the kind of people who?ve gone out on a limb and done something very unusual. You?re trying to capture the essence of the person and what makes them different and individual.? On the current project, she is working with a Scottish writer and together the two have already been out on location to research the story. ?Between us,? she says, ?we?ve been reading between the lines of what we can find, and from that a story has emerged from what *wasn?t* written down.? With names like Nick Nolte and Helena Bonham-Carter mentioned as possible leads, it promises to be a fascinating project.

?Isabella Bird should be fantastically famous,? begins Kinmonth, sipping quietly from a cup of tea. ?She?s like the Ranulph Fiennes of her time. She?s the first female Fellow of the RGS and was fantastically brave and intrepid. Fairly awe-inspiring, in fact. She did all these travels during the second half of the nineteenth century and as well as being very good at travelling - she travelled on her own and liked to travel to places that were very remote - the great thing about her was that she was also a very good writer.?

Kinmonth?s project began with the discovery of some of Bird?s original letters, written home to her family from Colorado in 1873, as she was planning to climb the region?s highest mountain - and before the fame of her later years.

?There?s hardly anything there at all, and the letters which were written were inevitably self-censored, because she knew they were going to be read out over the drawing room. She was falling in love with somebody she wasn?t mean to be falling in love with. She knew that her fiancee would probably get to hear about it. So we knew the letters had a certain degree of truth - they were very, very fascinating - even though there was hardly anything there.?

Before she explains these tantalising details any further, Kinmonth sets out some background: ?She partly started travelling because of her illnesses. Like many women of that time, she was straightjacketed. Many of these people seemed to suffer from illness, but it was probably from being forced to sit in some chilly rectory doing nothing. So the doctor told her that she had to take a long sea voyage.?

She was only in her mid-20s, but the chance to go away also relieved her - she was under her family?s pressure to get married and settle down, something she didn?t wish to do. Her first sea voyage went to America, via Australia and Cape Horn. During the journey, she stopped off in Hawaii and wrote one of her first books, with what Kinmonth jokes was a terrible title - Six Months in the Sandwich Islands.

?She was very intrepid, though. She climbed the world?s biggest volcano there - one of the very first white woman to climb up it - and wrote very amusingly about it all. She managed to tag onto people, scientists and so on, but she would take charge, and end up knitting all the time! She was quite eccentric. She would get to the top of the volcano, for example, and complain that someone had forgotten the tea. But she also wrote quite vividly of these scenes of hell and sulphur.?

According to Kinmonth, reading between the lines of her work shows that ?she was definitely avoiding something.? However, she returned to her home in Scotland and duly became engaged to a local doctor, before being commissioned again by her publisher to travel out to Colorado.

At that time - 1873 - this area was barely out of the Wild West and sporadic incidents between white settlers and native Americans were still taking place. ?The Western Frontier had only just moved up there,? Kinmonth explains, ?and they hadn?t even discovered gold yet in the Black Hills. It was very much like going into a warzone, like sending someone to Bosnia today. The Indian Wars were still happening and there were lots of isolated incidents of revenge. It was a dangerous place to be.?

Bird?s mission was to write about the Scots who were flooding into the area, following the notorious Highland clearances in their native land. Kinmonth says that Bird had already written about the clearances in another work, and due to her temperance upbringing (her father was a minister) she ?initially took a very strict view, and said that if they didn?t drink so much, they?d be very good emigrants and they?d do a lot better. So she went out with this rather po-faced attitude!?

Because she was so strict, and tiny (4?11?), she was an object of hilarity in the local community. ?I think someone describes her as an overstuffed puffin!? notes Kinmonth. ?People had never come across anything like her before. The settlers were threatened, because she was a lone woman, riding around on her own, on horseback, with no ties to anyone.?

?But then she met and fell in love with this alcoholic, who was this desperado gun-slinger and outlaw. A classic Western archetypal character called Mountain Jim.?

Mountain Jim was about 15 years Bird?s senior and of Irish extraction. He had fought in various battles against the native Americans as a gun-for-hire. Half his face was destroyed, thanks to an encounter with a grizzly bear, leaving him with one handsome side and the other gnarled and twisted. ?But he was a very romantic character. In a way, she sort of found her Heathcliffe with him. I think she was rather intrigued by his darkness.?

Bird needed a guide to help her climb Longs Peak, the highest mountain in the region. ?Isabella really wanted to be an explorer at this time,? says Kinmonth, ?and she really wanted recognition at home but wasn?t getting it. Becoming a member of the RGS was all about being first to do something. She was driven like the men were, to be the first up this mountain.?

Jim was the only one who could help, so she approached him at his shack at the top of a gulch, and he agreed. She grew to like him, because he could recite great reams of poetry and could get on with almost anybody he was with. He was intelligent, and liked her toughness. ?He had kind of met his match there.?

However, Kinmonth adds that: ?I think they argued quite a lot! That?s the essence of what my film is about. It?s a classic case of these screwball characters, obviously made for each other!?

They did climb the mountain together - Bird only just made it - but the story has a sad ending. Jim had really come to the mountain to die, full of remorse and haunted by the memories of the terrible things he had done during his campaigns against the native Americans. Shortly after Bird ran out of money, after more than three months in the mountain valley, she had to return to Scotland. Jim was killed only a few weeks later in a shootout.

In fact, he was killed by a henchman of an English earl, Lord Dunraven, who was hoping to claim the mountain valley as his own, for hunting purposes. His men, hired from Denver, would pose as settlers and claim land for themselves - even using a mobile home on wheels, which they would photograph on a piece of land to supply to the Denver claims office! Kinmonth then reflects with sadness that all the local place names around Longs Peak reflect Dunraven?s name. Nothing remains of Mountain Jim, no memorials at all.

However, she explains the moral of the story. ?So in the middle of all this, Isabella Bird had walked into what was a classic Western story. In the process, she went on a long (personal) journey herself. She started out trying to stop all these people drinking whiskey, which is a bit of a mad thing to do, and ended up with this mad alcoholic. And I think she nearly saved him, she nearly did. She was very, very strong willed.? As she speaks, Kinmonth looks almost wistful for a moment.

Then she continues, telling me that after returning to Scotland, Bird had to look after her sister (who had typhoid) and married her fiancee (with whom she made an agreement that she be allowed to keep on travelling). When he suddenly died, her life suddenly took off at the age of 40. She went on to voyage up the Yangtze River , travelling 5000 miles all the way to Tibet. She went further than any white woman had ever been. People threw stones at her and ridiculed her, but it didn?t stop her ambitions. After that, she travelled extensively in countries such as Turkey, Morocco, Kurdistan and Persia.

?She travelled in a different way to the way the men travelled. She didn?t go to the Empire, nor was she a member of the ?gentleman?s club? culture at the time, All she wanted was recognition at home, but found this fantastic resistance from the RGS, who wouldn?t admit any women members.? In her final obituary, her achievements were at last recognised as extraordinary, both as a woman and as an explorer.

For Kinmonth, there is a certain justice in what she is trying to do with Isabella Bird?s story. ?All those strong women of the time - like George Elliot or Florence Nightingale - were educated brilliantly but just straightjacketed. The RGS had been so incredibly unfair on Isabella. She was fighting for her rights in an era before the suffragettes, before there was all this language for women to express themselves. The whole thing about exploration had been such a male domain and the standards were completely different for women.?

This story first appeared in Geographical Magazine © 2000

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