An impressive new book, published by Ammonite Press and the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), documents three China expeditions by a famous Victorian explorer and best-selling travel writer who had her first taste of the country in colonial Hong Kong.

As a slightly stout, middle-aged woman from Yorkshire, England, who suffered from chronic ill health, Isabella Lucy Bird hardly conformed to the stereotypical image of an intrepid adventurer.

Her first visit to the colony, in December 1878, went unreported except for the briefest acknowledgement, in the shipping section of the China Mail newspaper, of her subsequent departure to Singapore. When she returned, in 1895, as a well-established literary superstar, Hong Kong was in the grip of bubonic plague.

By then, the observations of this indomitable widower informed prime ministers, monarchs and the reading public of Britain about a China witnessed by very few Westerners. Aged 64, she was about to undertake the penultimate and most challenging expedition of her illustrious career: a 13,000km journey up the Yangtze River by boat and then overland through Sichuan province to Tibet.

Bird was a fiercely independent woman from a middle-class family who defied society's norms to become a successful writer and one of the first female fellows of the RGS. And all this in an era when European women did not engage in overseas travel unless it was to accompany their husband on a colonial career posting. Her work was often unfairly dismissed by male contemporaries as frivolous coffee-table entertainment: in reality, she ventured into the remotest of locations, often unaccompanied; took note of the local climate, fauna, flora and economy; and produced compelling accounts containing a humanitarian sensitivity and lightness of touch that were unique for the time.

Bird set the tone for contemporary travel writers by demonstrating that the journey itself was the adventure and that ordinary people often make more engaging subjects than burnished copper sunsets and snow-capped mountains.

BORN IN 1831 IN Boroughbridge, Yorkshire, to the affluent family of an Anglican vicar, Bird was a small sickly child. The family uprooted many times because her father was staunchly against working on the Sabbath; his zealous approach alienated many of his flock.

Her first sea voyage, to the United States (which would inform Bird's first book, published in 1856, An Englishwoman in America), was made at the suggestion of doctors, to help with her insomnia and depression.

Bird liked to write but she would also become an accomplished travel photographer, encouraged by her friend and secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, John Scott Keltie, and instructed by pioneering photojournalist John Thomson. Her catalogue of photographs, somewhat neglected for more than a century, form the basis of the new book Isabella Bird - A Photographic Journal of Travels through China 1894-1896.

"She was a truly amazing woman," says travel photography expert and author Deborah Ireland, who compiled the book. "She didn't start learning photography until she was 60 years old. She decided to take up a new profession when most people are considering retirement.

"And she was very accomplished technically. Not as good as Thomson, maybe, but in the same league."

The images in the book reveal Bird's prodigious technical skill in creating high-quality images in the most testing of conditions.

Ireland explains that after the sudden death of Bird's father from influenza, in 1858, a huge financial burden was placed on the writer and her also unmarried sister, Henrietta.

"It was financial necessity that started her travelling," says Ireland. "At 40, she is thought to be unmarriable and went to Australia. We don't know for sure but maybe it was thought she could get lucky there, but she just couldn't handle the heat, the drunk men and the flies, and she tells her sister she must return home."

It was on that trip home from Australia in 1873, dreading the prospect of a cold and dreary winter in Scotland (her mother, Dora, had moved to Edinburgh) with little money, that Bird decided to take a seven-month sojourn in Hawaii. It was an extraordinary risk for a Victorian spinster in ill health and, explains Ireland, it marks a major watershed in her life.

"In Hawaii there are none of the social constraints of colonial rule or Victorian moral correctness, and she observed that people can be truly very happy with very little."

Bird's subsequent book, written in Edinburgh, is called The Hawaiian Archipelago: Six months among the Palm Groves, Coral Reefs and Volcanoes of the Sandwich Islands. Based on her letters home to Henrietta, the writing has an intimacy and informality, and, when published in 1875, the book sold out within 12 months and brought her fame and financial independence.

"No one has an adventure like Ms Bird," crowed The Spectator magazine, in its review of her next release, A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, published in 1879. The book was another hit and includes a timeless description of the charismatic local outlaw Rocky Mountain Jim as "a man any women would fall in love with but who no sane woman would ever marry".

"No one was writing like this at the time," says Ireland.

It was while working on The Golden Chersonese in 1878/79 that Bird first visited Hong Kong and China. Never one for the gilded comfort of the first-class quarters of a palatial steamer, she travelled to Hong Kong from Japan on the cheap and was happy to describe the discomfort for the entertainment of her readers: "The Volga is a miserable steamer … the ship was damp, dark, dirty, old and cold."

"Her rivals were staying in five-star accommodation but Isabella could offer her readers danger, dirt and reality," says Dr Julia Kuehn, of the University of Hong Kong, whose research interests include the travel writing of Victorian women. "This was her 'wow factor'."

Despite arriving in the midst of the great fire of 1878, which consumed as many as 400 buildings in Central, Bird thought the city of Victoria was beautiful and even compared it to Genoa, in Italy: "It has covered green balconies with festoons of creepers, lofty houses, streets narrow enough to exclude much of the sun, people and costumes of all nations."

Guangzhou made even more of an impression: "Of all the places I have seen, Canton is the most overwhelmingly interesting, fascinating and startling. 'See Canton and die' I would almost say.

"I like the faces of the lower orders of Chinese women." This affection was to last for her lifetime.

"She was very attuned to the social situation of women and has a very strong ethic of service," says Ireland.

Henrietta, who Ireland refers to as Bird's "touchstone", died of typhoid fever shortly after the traveller returned from this trip, in June 1880. Still in mourning, Bird married her sister's doctor, John Bishop. It was his untimely death in March 1886 that acted as a catalyst for another series of intense adventures - to Persia, Kurdistan and then Korea.

In 1894, Bird was suddenly deported from Korea ahead of the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war and ended up back in China, with no luggage, in a small missionary hospital in Mukden (Shenyang, capital of Liaoning province) being treated for malaria and a broken arm. Here she witnessed what Ireland calls the "unintentionally insulting and patronising" attitude of Westerners, characterised by their poor language skills, offensive tight-fitting dress, ignorance of local customs and futile preaching of Christianity to locals who revered calligraphy and the printed word.

From this point "Isabella adopts Chinese dress and is culturally sensitive; she is one of the first women of her generation to wear trousers", says Ireland.

From Mukden, Bird travelled to Peking before being deported to Vladivostok, Russia.

Little is known about the brief stop Bird made in Hong Kong in February 1895, other than she was suffering more than usual from bad health (sciatica and spine problems), stayed with Bishop John Burdon and his wife and gave two lectures: one at City Hall on "Korea" and the other to the Hong Kong Literary Society on "Lesser Tibet". She left the city to embark on a tour of the southern treaty ports, to stop in at Protestant missions Thomson had visited several years earlier.

Her highly descriptive accounts of China contain a sensitivity quite unique for the period and she championed the country at a time when many colonialists cosseted within the European settlements of the treaty ports preferred to denigrate anything Chinese.

"People think it witty to ridicule everything Chinese, poke fun at these junks and their 'pig-tailed', long-coated crews, but their handling of them is masterly," writes Bird.

Having spent so much of her life on vessels of one sort or another, she was more than qualified to make the nautical observation.

The Yangtze expedition in 1895 from Shanghai was extremely hazardous, undertaken initially by riverboat with a team of trackers responsible for hauling, rowing and dragging the vessel up treacherous rapids and against powerful currents. These were tough men often naked or dressed in dripping rags, engaged in taxing physical labour and, on board, Bird was divided from them only by a flimsy cloth curtain.

"There is genuine admiration and affection, and she refers to their bravery as they risk losing their footing on steep cliffs adjacent to the river," says Ireland.

There is a wonderful photograph of the trackers hunched over their meals in Bird's riverboat.

"They are rough, truly, but as the voyage went on, their honest work, pluck, endurance, hardihood, sobriety and good nature won my sympathy and in some sort my admiration," Bird would write.

"She adopts a very humanitarian perspective that you just don't get with other explorers and she embraces the people she travels with," says Ireland.

When travelling through Sichuan, Bird revelled in understated accounts of being pelted with mud, attacked by mobs, assaulted with sticks and trying to sleep in damp, cold, squalid accommodation. Eventually she resorted to carrying a revolver, neatly concealed in her skirts. But she resisted the temptation to adopt a histrionic tone, even when trying to sleep in a darkened timber outhouse-cum-pig-sty shortly after a rowdy mob had been trying to beat her door down, accusing her of being a "baby-eater" and "foreign devil": "… and in the midst of the coarse shouts of rough men to hear a feeble accompaniment of rats eating one's few things".

In the final chapter of The Yangtze Valley and Beyond, published in 1899, Bird "gets a few things off her chest", as Ireland puts it.

"She writes the Yangtze book as a protest because almost everyone writing at the time about China with any authority had never actually been there," says Ireland. And Bird had the confidence to dedicate the book to the British prime minister of the day.

"Commercial and industrial energy is not decaying, the vast fleets of junks are not rotting in the harbours and reaches, industry, thrift, resourcefulness and the complete organisation both of labour and commerce meet the traveller on every turn," Bird writes, going further to challenge the conveniently held misconceptions of the day.

"A lot of her images are trying to emphasise that China is not a place in decline," says Ireland, who points out a favourite photograph, of a busy river port with boats, men working in the foreground and the town in the background.

Bird also found time to defend the Chinese political system: "The theory of the Chinese government is one of the best ever devised by the wit of man," and "the peasant is not ground down".

This independent woman rejected the notion that China was feeble and in dire need of Western intervention and observed society with a woman's eye. It was Bird who drew the West's attention to the practice of mui tsai (the selling of young girls into domestic work or prostitution), which she describes as a "peculiar hateful form of slavery which is recognised by Chinese custom", and the tradition of binding of young girl's feet, which she depicts in agonising detail.

"She is definitely celebrated as an icon of feminism," says Kuehn. "She is an icon for her independence, for her overcoming physical hardships and for breaking away from the expectations of domestic Victorian life. She is a proto-feminist of the 19th century, though she never directly supported the suffragette movement.

"The interesting thing, though, is that she never questioned the status quo as a loyal daughter of the British empire - it is the empire that enables her travels. It gives her the confidence or maybe the arrogance to march off wherever she likes."

Maybe this is why Bird divides opinion. She was an inspirational, independent woman, an accomplished writer and a pioneer but she was also a proud colonialist and defender of the empire.

"I can't quite pin her down," admits Kuehn. "She is very colonial and, in Hong Kong, she talks with pride about 'our colony' but she stays in Hong Kong for only three days [in 1878] and she is not really interested in colonial society. Hong Kong is not remote enough for her taste and she longs for the outback."

Ireland agrees with Kuehn that Bird would never have identified herself as a feminist or a radical: "She ignored the fact that she was a woman and just got on with it."

That epic three-year journey up the Yangtze River, crossing over the Chengdu plain to the border of Tibet, was the last in Asia for this formidable woman, who confessed she was reluctant to leave Asia for the grey drudgery of Britain.

She travelled to North Africa in her later years but her poor health finally caught up with her. It was said that when Isabella Lucy Bird died, in Edinburgh, on October 7, 1904, her camera was in London along with her luggage, packed for one last journey to China.