Glynis Ridley’s novel The Discovery of Jeanne Baret is A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe
The Discovery of Jeanne Baret Synopsis:
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 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.
Expedition commander Louis-Antoine de Bougainville recorded in his journal that curious Tahitian natives exposed Baret as a woman, eighteen months into the voyage. But the true story, it turns out, is more complicated.
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.
Ridley also richly explores Baret’s awkward, sometimes dangerous interactions with the men on the ship, including Baret’s lover, the obsessive and sometimes prickly naturalist; a fashion-plate prince who, with his elaborate wigs and velvet garments, was often mistaken for a woman himself; the sour ship’s surgeon, who despised Baret and Commerson; even a Tahitian islander who joined the expedition and asked Baret to show him how to behave like a Frenchman.
But the central character of this true story is Jeanne Baret herself, a working-class woman whose scientific contributions were quietly dismissed and written out of history—until now. Anchored in impeccable original research and bursting with unforgettable characters and exotic settings, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret offers this forgotten heroine a chance to bloom at long last.
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What really hits you when you start reading The Discovery of Jeanne Baret is the level of research that author Glynis Ridley has undertaken prior to putting pen to paper.
In this book Ridley presents for the reader what she believes took place in the life of this remarkable woman. Ridley refers to historical artifacts to support her position when available, but she does not let their absence stop her from telling a complete story of Baret’s life and of the lives of those she interacted with. Where there is little to no documented evidence she bridges the gap with deductive reasoning. At times she puts herself in the position of Jeanne and conveys her likely actions, thoughts and motivations.
It is Glynis Ridley’s conversational style that makes The Discovery of Jeanne Baret such compelling reading.
I thoroughly enjoyed following the historian/researchers logic with full knowledge that some of what was presented as though it were fact was educated speculation verging on historical fiction. I do note however that some other reviewers considered this a weakness.
What cannot be questioned is Ridley’s ability to set an evocative scene.
As they skirted a guano-encrusted beach colony of tens of thousands of the birds, Baret, Commerson, and the prince likely crossed paths with one or more of the two-foot-high penguins running full tilt in its distinctive side-to-side gait as it headed back to its onshore nest. A more improbable grouping is hard to imagine, as these eighteenth-century travelers — a woman dressed as a man, a man pretending not to know that his assistant was a woman, and a second man dressed more richly than most women — stared down at a black-and-white bird under half their height that defied them to go any further. Between the austere color palette of the penguin and the brilliant velvet of the prince, the strait has perhaps never hosted a meeting of greater contrasts.
In The Discovery of Jeanne Baret Glynis Ridley does not glorify the acts of this woman or her fellow adventurers. She presents the unpleasant aspects of history in context and retains a researcher’s objectivity. A fascinating read.
BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 4 / 5
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Genre: Non-Fiction, Historical, Action-Adventure
About the Author, Glynis Ridley
Glynis Ridley‘s first book Clara’s Grand Tour: Travels with a Rhinoceros in Eighteenth-Century Europe, won the Institute of Historical Research (University of London) Prize. A British citizen, she is now a professor of English at the University of Louisville.
Other reviews of The Discovery of Jeanne Baret:
* I received a paperback copy from Crown Publishing – Random House for review purposes. My receiving this title at no cost did not impact my ability to express my honest opinions about it.