Around the World in 65 Days [Book Review]

In 1894, noted scifi author George Griffith set out on a trip around the world in an attempt to break the world’s record which, at the time, stood at 74 days. Griffith took the trip on behalf of “Pearson’s Weekly” and he documented each leg in serial fashion, undoubtedly bringing in many new readers for the paper. From London to France, Italy, the Orient, through Canada and on to NY before heading back again, Griffith talks of the sites, the customs, the travel delays, the overcharging and the unfulfilled promises of transport companies, hotels and restaurants. In other words, not much has changed in the past 100 plus years!

Around the World in 65 Days is an anthology that pairs Griffith’s travel tales with a short biography of the man written by “Space” writer and editor Robert Godwin. Griffith didn’t start out wanting to be a writer but he was always an adventurer who spent much of his early life traveling around the world multiple times. But as it often happens, money troubles had him looking for work later in life and fate sent him to publisher Cyril Pearson. Originally, Griffith was hired to write an advice column in response to reader mail, but he really found his calling when Pearson asked for a story that would compete with a popular serial in a competitive weekly.

With nothing but a love for Jules Verne and a recent interview with a man working on the problems of flight, Griffith penned an amazing scifi tale about a futuristic battle between Russia and England. Godwin says the story read like a “Victorian Tom Clancy novel” and included portions that were oddly prophetic. In 1893, the serialized story was put together in book form. It was called “The Angel of the Revolution – A Tale of the Coming Terror” and with that, Griffith became a true scifi pioneer.

But Around the World in 65 Days isn’t a scifi story. It’s an amusing travelogue that is highly relatable, even today. Griffith had a droll sense of humor that pops out on the page at unexpected times. You see it first when he talks about receiving the bill for a meal in Paris. He informs the waiter that he only wants to pay for the food, not the table and the table settings. The confused waiter, says he is only paying for the food and so Griffith writes:

“Time was lacking for further argument, so I paid up, feeling very  much as though I was compounding a felony in doing so.”

From there, Griffith fills you in on the details of train travel, the scenery of Italy and then what it’s like living on a steamer ship for a month. Ship travel is punctuated by five important events daily, he says, starting with breakfast which hopefully gives you the energy to wait for lunch and “speculate on what the run will be.” Other than meals, cocktails (tiffin) and sleeping are the other big events which grow even more important as the boat heads south and the heat rises. At one point, Griffith speculates quite wisely on the concept of “dressing” for dinner in a full suit when the temperature is soaring.

“One would think that men, who in other respects show no signs of mental weakness or congenital insanity, would not think it necessary to encase their moist and manly forms in dress suits, starched shirts and high collars in order to sit down to dinner on board a steamboat in company with people with whom they will probably never have a more than the current month’s acquaintance.”

As Griffith reaches the Orient, his patience and his tolerance for all mankind wanes and his sarcasm deepens. The best passage in the book, though comes about when he realizes that the ship he is taking to Canada isn’t traveling anywhere near as fast as their literature suggested. Since he was trying to break a record, he carefully chose each means of transportation with very little time for connections in between. But when he realizes that the ship to Canada is traveling only 15 knots not the promised 19 knots, he worries that he could miss his train connection and thus his final passage from NY to London which would keep him from breaking the record.

He explains his method of calculation then adds this passage;

“I don’t give these particulars for the purpose of finding fault either with the shipped order management, I do it nearly as a gentle hint to the company to put some little restraint on the imagination of the gentleman who does the literary portion of their advertising and work.”

1894 and advertisers are lying to get him to buy their product. How perfect is that.

Around the World in 65 Days also includes a handful of other short travelogues written by Griffith. Anyone who suffered through Y2K will find his essay on the complexities of time zones, very amusing. The piece is called, “When Will the 20th Century Commence” and features his tale about a devote priest who spent a great deal of time preparing for Sunday service on a boat ride west from Australia only to find that when Sunday arrived, so had the 90th meridian making it Monday, skipping Sunday altogether.

Around the World in 65 Days is delightful read for travel enthusiasts and lovers of the Victorian era. The book is annotated with nearly a hundred photos from the time, illustrating the world as it was when George Griffith took his record breaking trip. Anyone who has ever complained about having their flight canceled, landed in a seedy motel room or shared close traveling quarters with an unkempt seatmate, will truly appreciate this look at 19th century travel.

The book is published by Apogee and you can buy it at Amazon.com.

 

*Yes, I know it’s not a TV Tie-in but it’s related to scifi and steampunk and I wanted to share!

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