Review: The Discovery of Jeanne Baret – Glynis Ridley

The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe
Genre: non-fiction, historical
Target audience: adults
Publisher: Crown
Published: December 2011
Book form: paperback, 291 pages
Review by Anachronist
Synopsis (from Amazon.com):
The year was 1765. Eminent botanist Philibert Commerson had just been appointed to a grand new expedition: the first French circumnavigation of the world. As the ships’ official naturalist, Commerson would seek out resources—medicines, spices, timber, food—that could give the French an edge in the ever-accelerating race for empire.
Jeanne Baret, Commerson’s young mistress, housekeeper and collaborator, was desperate not to be left behind. She disguised herself as a teenage boy and signed on as his assistant. The journey made the twenty-six-year-old, known to her shipmates as “Jean” rather than “Jeanne,” the first woman to ever sail around the globe. Yet so little is known about this extraordinary woman, whose accomplishments were considered to be subversive, even impossible for someone of her sex and class.
            
When the ships made landfall and the secret lovers disembarked to explore, Baret carried heavy wooden field presses and bulky optical instruments over beaches and hills, impressing observers on the ships’ decks with her obvious strength and stamina. Less obvious were the strips of linen wound tight around her upper body and the months she had spent perfecting her masculine disguise in the streets and marketplaces of Paris.
            
In The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, Glynis Ridley unravels the conflicting accounts recorded by Baret’s crewmates to piece together the real story: how Baret’s identity was in fact widely suspected within just a couple of weeks of embarking, and the painful consequences of those suspicions; the newly discovered notebook, written in Baret’s own hand, that proves her scientific acumen; and the thousands of specimens she collected, most famously the showy vine bougainvillea.
What I liked:
This book is definitely a very well-researched position which presents plenty of interesting facts concerning life and habits of people living in the 18th century in France and abroad. Although the main emphasis is on the ethnobotanical tradition and, more generally, French scientists and thinkers such as Jean le Rond d’Allembert, Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire, the ordinary people and their fates are mentioned often as well, especially women.
The narrative voice of Ms Ridley is quiet and pleasant although you really must take your time to get into the book. When you finally find the right rhythm, though, you can find such interesting historical tidbits as a short history of the coffee trade, and a fresh look into the situation of women in France prior to the Great Revolution (I didn’t know that they were not allowed to rent a flat on their own or stay on a ship for longer than just a moment – it was the law mind you!)
Overall, if you are a girl/woman living in Europe or in the USA, after reading this book you might stop complaining about your life for a significant period of time. The fates of women used to be much, much worse, especially poor, uneducated women who, like Jeanne, gave birth to an illegitimate child.
What I didn’t like:
With a title like that, I expected the book would be more focused on the main heroine, Jeanne Baret, who was the first woman to make a tour around the world on a ship. In other words, I expected a portrait, perhaps with some other people close to her and some plants in the background. What I got was a full-scale landscape, teeming of different people, plants, breathtaking vistas, ships, cities, and even animals. The heroine was a bit lost in the middle of all these goodies and, in my opinion, the whole book suffered because of that.
Don’t get me wrong – we still get to know plenty about Jeanne, her family and her profession. However, it is a bit too diluted; as soon as you start getting interested in the story of this strong and undoubtedly very brave woman the author throws your way one digression after the other; even if these are interesting per se, they dwarf poor Jeanne and her ordeal, making the book bland as a result. Pity.
Final verdict
I feel Jeanne Baret’s life deserves our full attention – I suppose she would be a great heroine of a truly gripping fictional story. Let me use this section to tell you why I think so.
This peasant female botanist was literate in times when 90% of women couldn’t read and write but still she couldn’t support herself without relying on Philibert Commerson. She supported his career, teaching him about plants and their properties. She had to give up their child to an orphanage because the boy would be an obstacle to Commerson’s plans. She worked very hard during circumnavigating the globe – harder than plenty of men around her, harder than her official employer and secret lover. She had to conceal her sex while living on a rather small ship full of men. She had to take care of Commerson’s ailing leg and the plants they gathered together. In return she was gang-raped by the crew at least at one occasion and her selfish employer failed to defend her. After Commerson’s death, she was left high and dry – far from home with just clothes on her back – their house in Paris with everything inside has been impounded. And, miraculously, she still found her ‘happily ever after’ – married a soldier, returned with him to France and made a life together.
Was her time with Commerson a complete failure? No. He taught her independence and she used that knowledge – after returning to France she petitioned the ministry and received her outstanding wages – a lump sum which made it possible to buy a house and some land. I love such endings!
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19 thoughts on “Review: The Discovery of Jeanne Baret – Glynis Ridley

  1. naida says:

    Great review. You did a good job at stating what you did and did not enjoy.This sounds like a book to really get swept into.I have heard the fates of women used to be horrible back then!

  2. Carole Rae says:

    Philibert? That name made me chuckle. hahahaha. Sounds interesting though (the book, not the name…well the name is interesting too…maybe I'll name my fish that…)Sorry, but yeah the book seems interesting. Great review

  3. Aarti says:

    Oh, I often get disappointed when book titles promise more than the books themselves deliver. I have a feeling that could be because there isn't as much research around related to Jeanne, so the author had to put in some filler. But it's still disappointing!

  4. Anachronist says:

    Thanks for all the comments – I do appreciate!I also felt Jeanne was somehow lost in this book. Maybe there weren't enough info available, I don't doubt original 18th century documents concerning such a woman would be few and far between. That's why I think a fictional novel would do this particular heroine more justice as you can patch it with your imagination rather with different trivia facts from the era. Of course it is only my personal opinion and I still enjoyed the book!

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