n 1836, when Isabella Bird Bishop was no more than five, she sneaked out of her sick bed where she had been told to stay in no uncertain terms. Isabella was desperate to see the bed of ranunculus that were in glorious bloom. That’s what was important to her – the flowers
Isabella was born with an adventurous spirit and a quirky one. She marched to her own drum. Isabella travelled extensively all over the world, writing well-received books about her trips. She went on many literal journeys yet like so many of us, the course of the journey of her life was greatly influenced by her childhood. It was a life of high adventure and mundane duty. It was full of highs and lows. It was a life where Isabella was securely at the helm. We may not wish a life like hers – but surely we all wish for a life of such self confidence.
Childhood Shapes You
As a very young child, Isabella would ride in front of her father, encouraged to observe the world in front of her. He would point out what they saw and explain the things they passed. This gave Isabella an interest in observing what was going on in front of her and understanding it. She developed keen and accurate powers of observation and this, along with the way her words painted a picture gave Isabella’s books their lift and led her to be the first woman elected to the Royal Geographical Society.
Isabella’s father was a cleric and Isabella was brought up in an atmosphere of causes and service to the community. Her family was progressive and politically active as well as being very involved in good works for father’s parishes. Isabella was quick witted and spoke her own mind, which, unlike many Victorian parents, her parents did not quash. Six year old Isabella asked the local MP, “did you tell my father my sister was so pretty because you wanted his vote?” She obviously also had a keen understanding of human motivations and how the world worked.
Isabella Becomes an Adventurer – and balances this with home commitments
Isabella began her global explorations when she was in her early Twenties. On the advice of her doctor to take a sea voyage, Isabella set sail for Canada. It was that happenstance which set Isabella on a different road. She knew her own mind and she seized the opportunity, travelling around Canada and the US for ten months before returning to the UK and writing a book about her impressions and experiences. This set a pattern of travelling and writing about her adventures that she repeated throughout her life.
After this trip, Isabella travelled in the UK but it was years before she went abroad again. Isabella had summered in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland since childhood and continued to spend time there. Echoing her upbringing, she threw herself into helping the local crofters who were facing the potato famine and also aided Hebrides Islanders emigrating to Canada with their paperwork and by writing about them to people she knew to ease their arrival. Isabella even made new wardrobes and eased the emigrating crofters on their way, making sure of a good landing. Being of service was woven into the fabric of Isabella’s life from childhood and it never wavered.
Yet Isabella grew restless, she felt the call of the open sea again. She had set up home with her sister and while busy and engaged she began chafing at the same old round of life. Isabella felt unfulfilled. She would leave the UK again and again.
Isabella wrote during her at the start of her next voyage – a journey to Australia:
“At last I am in love, and the old sea-god has so stolen my heart and penetrated my soul that I seriously feel that hereafter, though I must be else- where in body, I shall be with him in spirit ! My two friends on board this ship have several times told me that I have imbibed the very spirit of the sea. It is to me like living in a new world, so free, so fresh, so vital, so careless, so unfettered, so full of interest that one grudges being asleep; and, instead of carrying cares and worries and thoughts of the morrow to bed with one to keep one awake, one falls asleep at once to wake to another day in which one knows that there can be nothing to annoy one no door-bells, no “please mems,” no dirt, no bills, no demands of any kind, no vain attempts to overtake all one knows one should do. Above all, no nervousness, and no conventionalities, no dressing. It sounds a hideously selfish life, but in the inevitably intimate association of people in all circumstances for months of almost entire isolation, human relations spring up and human interests and in some instances warm feelings of regard, which have a tendency to keep selfishness in a degree under.
In 1872, Isabella sailed for Australia and then Hawaii and the Continental US, returning to Britain in 1873. This set another pattern of Isabella returning home, writing about her adventures and doing her duty then setting off again to discover a different part of the world to visit and write about – Japan, Korea … .
In between, Isabella nursed her beloved sister Henrietta as she was dying of Typhoid and later saw her husband through his last illness. She was always actively involved in her local British society, helping people and advocating for change – like she helped the Hebrides Island crofters emigrate.
Adventurousness but not Selfish
Isabella knew who she was and she was confident in her own mind. She stepped forward in life with this self confidence and certitude. Isabella managed this through a mixture of her upbringing and how she journeyed to her own understanding of who she was. This was a lifelong process of leavings and returns, of the familiar as well as the new and far-flung. Isabella had a strong start in being given self confidence, yet this is how Isabella evolved, and she had the self confidence to follow it.
Isabella always worried she was selfish because she was followed her own adventurous spirit. Yet she was always there, reliable, and had a strong sense of the importance of being unfailing and steadfast.
What a great way to live a life of self confidence! Figuring out who you are and what has influenced you. Looking into what you want to keep and what is undermining – ridiculous expectation or an unreliable voice. Isabella made it look effortless to glide along confident in herself, yet to do this in a way that took into account those she loved. She shows how it’s possible to be self confident, to follow who you and who you want to while at the same time, give thought for others.