My main hero is probably my mother, and she is as real and nuanced a human to me as it gets! But today in this post I want to talk about a different set of heroes - two of my (many) writing heroes, Nellie Bly and Aphra Behn.
Nellie Bly (real name Elizabeth Jane Cochrane) was an American journalist who inspired by the character Phileas Fogg took a record breaking trip around the world in 72 days in 1899. She had pitched the idea to her Editor at the New York World and about a year later she hopped on board a steamer - after two days notice - to embark on a journey around the globe. One of the original light packers, she took only the dress she was wearing, a sturdy overcoat, some underwear, and a small travel wash bag. She wore all her money around her neck. Bly took railways and steamships to journey through England, France (where she actually met Jules Verne), Brindisi, the Suez Canal, Colombo (Ceylon), the Straits Settlements of Penang and Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan, regularly reporting back to the office via telegraph.
This wasn't the only of her impressive journalistic feats - Bly's investigative writing career spanned decades and included a stint of undercover incarceration in a state 'mad house' to reveal the sordid practices going on behind closed doors. 1887 she feigned insanity to investigate reports of brutality and neglect at the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island. She experienced and unveiled the horrific treatment patients faced which included stale food, being beaten, tied to the beds, and left in cold waste filled rooms.
Bly became convinced that many of the women were in fact as sane as she was. The paper came to request her release after 10 days and embarrassed staff panicked, flailing about to explain how they had been fooled. Bly wrote a book about the experience which prompted public outrage and a grand jury to investigate conditions. Based on their recommendations the budget for the care of the insane was given a $850,000 boost and new standards were introduced.
She had been inspired as a young woman to start writing after reading a loathsomely misogynistic piece called 'What Girls Are Good For' in the Pittsburgh Dispatch. She replied to the article with one of her own and so impressed the Editor he gave her a job. Bly married a millionaire manufacturer in her early 30s and retired from journalism to become a steel industrialist. Despite great success in this field she was bankrupted when some of her employees embezzled her company. Bly took up the pen once more and reported on the first world war and women's suffrage. She died aged 57 of pneumonia.
Bly led a fascinating and driven life, learn more about her life and writing here - www.nellieblyonline.com
Considered to be the first female professional writer in England, Aphra Behn was also a damn spy!
Much of early her life remains shrouded in mystery partly due to the time period she lived in, the Restoration period. Although the Restoration was a well documented time, Behn's activities were not recorded until her late 20's - largely by virtue of her own efforts to mythicise her life. She went by multiple names and fictionalised her own early years. Behn remains an enigma of her own making.
By the mid-1660s Behn had begun to circulate at the Royal Court. She was recruited as a political spy in Antwerp on behalf of King Charles II during the Anglo-Dutch War. This was an expensive endeavour for Behn and she was forced to pawn her belongings after a month. The King was slow in coughing up cash to his conspirators (when he paid them at all) and she ended up in serious debt.
To tackle her mounting financial problems she took to writing for the King's Company and the Duke's Company players. Despite 'cultured' society looking down on her work for it's 'bawdy' (read 'masculine') style, Behn's popularity grew and she was able to earn an independent living as one of England's most productive and prolific writers. She penned 19 plays, as well as multiple poems, novels, and translations.
Sadly in the last few years of her life Behn fell into destitution and died in poverty. She went out swinging though and wrote furiously through to her dying days when even holding a pen had become a struggle.