Review: The Discovery of Jeanne Baret by Glynis Ridley

Genre: non-fiction, historical
Target audience: adults
Book form: paperback, 291 pages
 This book was provided by the author’s publisher via my lady Blodeuedd’s excellent blog in return for an honest review. I haven’t been compensated for writing the said review in any way and the fact that the book came free of charge didn’t influence me either.   
Synopsis (excerpts 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’Alembert, Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseauand 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  plants in the background. What I got was a full-scale landscape, teeming with 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
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 became his mistress but also she helped him in his career, teaching him about plants and their properties. She had to give up their child to an orphanage most likely because the boy would be an obstacle to Commerson’s plans. Then she did what she could to be able to accompany him during a three-year long journey –  she took every risk possible.She worked very hard during circumnavigating the globe – harder than plenty of men around her, definitely harder than her official employer and secret lover. She had to conceal her sex while living on a rather small ship full of men (the crew was over 100 people). She had to take care of Commerson’s ailing leg and the plants they gathered together. In return she was constantly watched, manhandled from time to time and finally gang-raped by the crew at least once during the journey. Her selfish employer failed to help or defend her. After Commerson’s death, she was left high and dry – far from home, with just clothes on her back, with no money or connections to ensure her a safe return. Commerson’s house in Paris with everything inside, so also Jeanne’s personal effects, has been impounded. And you know what? 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 waste and failure? No. He taught her independence and she used that knowledge – after returning to France she dared petition the appropriate ministry and she 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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11 Responses to Review: The Discovery of Jeanne Baret by Glynis Ridley

  1. heidenkind says:

    Sounds like a fabulous story. I'm disappointed to hear the focus wasn't more on the woman in question. =/

  2. Blodeuedd says:

    The non-fic did it for me, I would have liked to hear her story. That which you also commented on. Still glad you liked it more than I would have 😉

  3. Anachronist says:

    heidenkind – I don't doubt the author tried to be factual but the result was underwhelming. I am sure a good fiction book would work better, at least for me.Blodeuedd – thanks for sending this one my way. I still learned plenty and it wasn't a complete loss of time. 😉

  4. I know what you mean about a character getting lost in the details. Sometimes, we don't need all of the excess because it's not necessarily pertinent to the main story we'd like to hear. It sounds like Jeanne Baret was a very interesting woman who lead a very interesting life. I love hearing about people like this, it leads me to hope that I can do anything, too!

  5. That was the expedition that Bougainville took after Quebec City fell to the English. It must have been an interesting trip on many levels but I can just imagine the difficulties in concealing one's gender in the close quarters of a ship at sea. Ginger Rogers could do everything that Fred Astaire could do, except she did it backwards and in high heels. Too bad the author could not bring Jeanne fully to life but I think I would want to read this anyway just for the history.

  6. Anachronist says:

    You can be what you want to be, dear Jen. No holds barred. Ok, really few holds barred.

  7. Anachronist says:

    It was a very interesting trip and it lasted three years. The best part is that some people taking part in it, Bougainville included, knew or guessed from almost the beginning who Jeanne Baret was.

  8. Bougainville appears in another more famous novel: Last of the Mohicans. The description of the fall of Fort Henry is from his journals. He was there.

  9. Anachronist says:

    I read The Last of the Mohicans like 100 years ago. James Fenimore Cooper, right? Dear me, Bougainville was there? He had a very interesting life, this guy did!

  10. Tracy says:

    Despite the flaws I'd still like to read this one, Anachronist. Sounds as though the author was fascinated by the whole milieu and couldn't bear to restrict the scope of the novel.

  11. Anachronist says:

    I got the same feeling, Tracy. From the factual point of view this book is very informative.

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