Review: Balloonomania Belles, Sharon Wright, Pen and Sword Books

Posted by on October 1, 2018 in Book review, History, Sport | 0 comments

We all know about the heroines of aviation  Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson, together with Mary Ellis, (profiled on damesnet) who clocked up over 1,100 hours of flying while delivering fighter planes to their bases during the war, for a start, but we know far less about the sisters who went into the skies before them: balloonistas with bags of bravado.

Thankfully, we now have Sharon Wright’s Balloonomania Belles to set the record straight, starting with the widespread speculation that M. Montgolfier saw a petticoat spread over a laundry basket begin to rise in the heat. Not surprisingly, it was in France that the first females took to the air: four prosperous ladies rose above Paris from the Rue de Montreuil on 20 May 1784. The public’s love affair with ballooning would continue for nearly 150 years.

The following year Letitia Sage blagged her way into a balloon and made the first female ascent in England – though her ample figure meant a third party had to be thrown off the trip, which led to ribald gossip as to exactly what Letitia and her pilot had got up to in the privacy of the basket.

From then on there was no holding the balloonistas back, and they soon ditched their male pilots to go solo and introduce a range of hair-raising stunts. The success of ballooning as popular entertainment meant that there was money to be made from it, and it offered working-class girls a way out of drudgery – but frequently on the basis of a familiar model: an ambitious male promoter exploiting reckless young women eager for stardom.

Sophie Blanchard, however, was obliged to manage her own career after the death of the husband who gave her the ballooning bug. And it was a literally dazzling career, as the ‘birdwoman of France’ added fireworks to the enthralling spectacle of her ascents. But, Icarus-like, she over-reached herself and was killed when a firework ignited the gas in her balloon.

Science and spectacle vied for supremacy in the years that followed, with aeronauts like Mary Breed Hawley, from New York state, developing an unmatched understanding of how to use air currents for accurate flights and perfecting the design of the balloon and the car underneath. In 1886 she bagged the (unverified) record for the highest ascent in a balloon filled with natural gas: 21,000 feet (almost four miles).

These daredevil dames then decided it was time to enliven their acts by parachuting back to earth, and eventually dispensed with such unnecessary luxuries as a basket in favour of a simple hoop or trapeze. Inevitably, the euphoria of weightless floating over exquisite panoramas and the adulation of hectic crowds are interspersed with sickening accidents and close shaves in the form of encounters with trees and chimney stacks, giving rise to questions in Parliament and harrumphing letters to editors.

You couldn’t want for a better antidote to pinkness than these tales of girls and women unleashing their pluck and inventiveness in the unregulated age of balloonomania. The achievement of Ms Wright’s well-researched book is not only to retrieve these women from obscurity, focusing in detail on a number of individual stories from the heyday of ballooning, but to give immediacy to its social context.

The media hype, the manipulations of unscrupulous promoters, the unforgiving responses of the disgruntled mob are all familiar to us – but then telling details will serve to remind you of the gulf between then and now: of the first four flyers, one dies in childbirth only a few months after her ascent while another is forced to to flee to England to escape the French Revolution; an anxious balloonista’s fears are easily dispelled by vigorous hymn-singing. This is history at its most satisfying.

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