Book Review: The Prodigal Mother: Two Books about Annie Londonderry by Peter Zheutlin

Zheutlin, Peter. Around the World on Two Wheels. One Woman, One Bicycle, One Unforgettable Journey.  Citadel Press, 2006. Print.

Zheutlin, Peter. Spin. A Novel Based on a (Mostly) True Story. Pegasus Books, 2021. Print.

Peter Zheutlin has given us two books about the imitable Annie Londonderry, who in 1896 became the first woman to ride a bicycle around the world. The first book, Around the World on Two Wheels, is a work of nonfiction supported by journalistic research and family interviews and records. The second book, Spin, is a fictional account of what sort of person Annie Londonderry may have been and what may or may not have happened during her travels. Together, these books shed light on a remarkable and unconventional person who connected the cycling craze of the 1890s to the aspirations and goals of the women’s movement of the 19th century. They show how Annie Londonderry rejected the duties and responsibilities of motherhood and experimented with freedom. Her experiment was not a psychological compensatory game, but a public, physical, and real project. The bicycle and her famous ride were supposed to elevate her to the status of a celebrity journalist. They were supposed to help her rise above the anonymity and mediocrity of lower, middle-class motherhood. Whether she turned out to the be hero of her own life, this review must not show. You’ll have to read one of Peter Zheutlin’s books to find that out for yourself. Suffice it to say Annie understood that the bicycle was a tool for improving her life and I think this makes her an important early figure in the history of the bicycle.

Annie Londonderry’s real name was Annie Kopchovsky (née Cohen). She was Jewish, born in Lithuania in 1870 or 1871 and immigrated to the US in 1875. She was a housewife with three children who also worked as a newspaper-advertising solicitor in Boston. She assumed the name Londonderry before her ride in exchange for $100 dollars from New Hampshire’s Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company. She undertook her adventure as part of a wager: she had to ride around the world in fifteen months, she had to start her journey with only her bicycle and the clothes on her back, she could not accept any charity or donations, but had to raise all the money for food and lodging with earnings from lectures and sponsorship deals. By the end of the ride she had to have $5,000 left in her pocket. If she met all these terms she would win $10,000.

Zheutlin suggests that this wager was nothing but wild fabrication, a publicity stunt to remind people of the very popular Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Vernes (1873). This would have been par for the course: Zheutlin reveals that fiction and deceit lay at the heart of almost everything Londonderry did. She said she was a Harvard medical student; Harvard did not accept women into its Medicine program until 1945. She claimed that bandits and “road-hogs” had attacked her out on the open road; conveniently, there were never any witnesses, just the bandages that may have covered lies more effectively than they mended wounds. She said she visited the frontlines of the Sino-Japanese War on her bicycle, eye-witnessing hand-to-hand combat between Chinese and Japanese soldiers. She even said the Japanese Army had briefly taken her prisoner. Again, there were never any witnesses to corroborate any of these stories. With each newspaper interview, her identity transformed. She was a lawyer. She founded a newspaper. She was an accountant. She was an orphan. If she was quick to invent details about her life, she was also eager to cover up truths. She always dodged questions about her marital status and her children. She never revealed that she was a Jew. And then there were questions about her bike ride. Did she even ride around the world? This seems doubtful. What seems certain is that she did ride across the US (with the assistance of one or two train rides), and she did ride across France. For the remainder of her voyage it is likely that she traveled by boat with a bicycle rather than on one.

Is this what early feminists had in mind when they created the idea of the “new woman”? In certain respects—yes, absolutely. Riding a bicycle, she showed society that physical mobility was as much the station of women as men. Given how many women started cycling in the 1890s, Annie was on the vanguard of an international zeitgeist. Wearing pants, she demonstrated that corsets and dresses had no place for the modern woman, at least when engaged in exercise. Travelling around the world completely alone, she enjoyed a freedom of movement that virtually all women, regardless of class, could still only dream of. Really, she far exceeded what people normally had in mind when they discussed the “new woman” of the Gilded Age. In many respects, Londonderry would still be considered exceptional today.

But there are at least two ways in which Annie may have gone too far beyond the pale. First, there is the problem of her deliberate deceit, already discussed. Second, she completely abandoned her family for fifteen months. She had three children, all under the age of five, with the youngest only being a few months old. Her husband, a Hasidic Jew devoted to prayer and scriptural study (shul), was not prepared to raise children alone. The kids were carted off to Londonderry’s brother and sister-in-law, apparently with only a few days’ warning. When she returned from her grand tour, she had no intention of returning to the household and raising kids. She made forays into journalism, but finally wound up being an entrepreneur. The consequences of her bicycle ride form the conclusion of both books. Zheutlin is distantly related to Londonderry so he was able to get details from relatives. Of particular note is Annie’s oldest daughter, Mollie, who abandoned Judaism and the USA to become Sister Thaddea, a nun in Saskatchewan.

While Annie was a charlatan and a trickster, her lies shed light on what might have been common longings for American women in the 1890s. It is significant that she lied about being a professional, and didn’t fabricate stories about being a healer, a fortune-teller, a mystic or some sort of femme fatale: she was a lawyer, a journalist, an accountant and a doctor. Not only had Annie rejected “the cult of true womanhood” with her bike ride, her lies aligned perfectly with the aspirations of all the leading feminists of her time. No wonder Annie made headlines across the US, the UK and France. Yes, she told lies, but she also revealed the truth that the time was ripe for women to have access to professions. That no newspaper questioned her claims reveals that much of the public was prepared to believe in the professionalization of women, even if institutions and gate-keepers of the time were not.

It is easy to overemphasize her lies. We should not allow telling tall tales detract from what she actually did accomplish. She was a young, lower-middle class Jewish immigrant woman who travelled around the world alone. True, she did not technically ride a bicycle all the way, but she did ride thousands of kilometres. She managed her own lecturing circuit during her travels. She arranged for numerous sponsorship and advertising deals. Much of the journalism about her discussed large sums of money: she connected real money to women at a time when that was not normally done. Most important of all, she did truly circumnavigate the world, and at a time when it was difficult for anyone to do it, let alone a young woman. While Annie constantly told lies to the press, she always kept true to herself. She did not content herself with quixotic dreams or vital lies about the prospect of taking a bike ride around the world. She did not settle for fantasies and confabulations of freedom as she stood before the sink doing the dishes. She actually went out and did it.

Hegel proposed that Aristotle was wrong: tragedy does not involve the fall of a great person, but portrays the unresolvable conflict between two correct but contradictory impulses. I find Annie Londonderry-Kopchovsky’s story to be tragic in the Hegelian sense. She found herself trapped in a life of caring for others, what Simone de Beauvoir called the immanence of femininity, and she rejected it. Her rejection took the form of a bicycle and a trip around the world. Her solution was unconventional, perhaps even unacceptable, but her frustration with postponing longing in the name of caring for others is understandable. Except for the disproportionately over-privileged, there is a little bit of Annie in all of us. If you have duties and responsibilities that cannot be avoided, then you also have had longings to be free of them. Some of us settle for the routine of working for the weekend; Annie took on the entire world with her bicycle.

If we compare her world-round trip to The Odyssey, we might do well to compare the psychological aspect of her ride to the labyrinth. She was clearly trying to lose her family and society in a maze of aspiration, but did she lose herself too? Who was she in relation to this mental structure, Daedalus, who designed its walls to impress and placate a tyrannical king, or the Minotaur it contained? It is impossible to answer this question, but posing it requires us to imagine what sort of mentality and personality Annie Londonderry might have had. I think she likely was a ruthless person who was very aware of how to get things accomplished, but a good deal less aware of what the voice of her conscience might have to say. I do not intend to condemn her; I merely want to accurately describe what sort of person she seems to have been.

For this reason, I found Zheutlin’s first book, the non-fiction one, stronger than his novel, Spin. In Spin, Zheutlin gives us Annie’s story in the first person and he makes her very friendly and relatable. Perhaps he did this so that he would not fall into the trap of judging her. But I do not think it is right to gloss over her harsher aspects. It rings false. To my thinking, Annie is a Byronic anti-hero, possessed by a passion, willfully blind to fundamental and painful aspects of her character, but also desperate to find a meaningful and satisfactory escape. Instead, Zheutlin makes Kopchovsky look a good deal more like Jane Eyre: she reminisces peacefully about a dramatic and adventurous period of her life that had enormous consequences for her family. This equanimity is convincing for Jane Eyre because she navigates her trials in such a way that her conscience is clear. But this type of narrator does not work in Kopchovsky’s mouth. There is darkness inside of her, an insatiable force that needs to be acknowledged, a force so strong that it can silence her conscience. Annie Londonderry in Spin is too transparent, too open to be believable. The real Annie had secrets. She made choices without caring about justifying them. An unreliable narrator would have suited her much better. She is certainly not at all like Jane Eyre; she is far more like Rochester.

In sum, Zheutlin gives us a complete picture of Annie Londonderry-Kopchovsky. He shows us her significance for early feminism and for the role cycling has played in emancipating us from socially defined roles. I take issue with his narrative choices in Spin. His Annie is too gentle for me. The book is still enjoyable and stimulating, perhaps because the narrator is so incongruent with the historical figure. In any case, all my observation means is that the definitive novel about Annie Londonderry may yet have to be written.