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Glynis Ridley – The Discovery of Jeanne Baret

January 23, 2012

2. The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe by Glynis Ridley (2010)

Length: 292 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction; History

Started: 01 January 2012
Finished: 06 January 2012

Where did it come from? From the publishers for review.
Why do I have it? Sailing ships, age of exploration, girls dressing as boys in pursuit of science? Sign me up!
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 14 December 2011.

History that reads
like fiction: girls cross-dressing
to sneak aboard ship.

Summary: Jeane Baret was born in rural France at a time when most peasants never travelled further than 20 miles from home, yet she became the first woman in history to circumnavigate the globe. Her lover, the eminent botanist Philibert Commerson, had been selected to accompany the expedition ordered by King Louis XV, to identify plants from around the world that could be used to support the French drive for expansion and colonization. Baret, with considerable botanical knowledge of her own, disguised herself as a boy, and came aboard as Commerson’s assistant. But maintaining her disguise on a ship full of hundreds of men was a difficult proposition, with terrifying consequences if she should fail. Working from the limited available sources – Baret left behind no account of her own – Ridley works to uncover the truth about Baret’s experiences, and to bring to light an exceptional woman who has been largely forgotten by history and science both.

Review: Seeing as I am a) a woman, b) a scientist, and interested in c) the age of exploration and d) the age of sail, I can’t quite believe that I’d never before heard of Jeanne Baret. Hers is a really fascinating and inspiring story, and this book deserves a lot of credit for introducing me to such an interesting part of history that I’d missed. I stayed glued to the pages much more than I would normally expect for non-fiction or biograpy, and learned a lot – not just about Baret, but tons of other interesting trivia. (For instance: bougainvillea was named by Commerson in honor of the expedition’s captain, Bougainville, and Peter Piper was actually a Frenchman named Pierre Poivre who was in charge of increasing Mauritius’s yield of exotic commercial crops – including peppercorns.)

However, as much as I enjoyed the Baret’s story, I was less enthralled with Ridley’s way of telling it. The hand of the historian is very apparent in Ridley’s prose, much more so than in most history and biography that I’ve read. Rather than telling the story and then revealing the sources, or integrating the source material as she goes, Ridley often talked about the sources and their veracity first, then gave us her interpretation, and rarely provided enough direct quotes for the reader to draw their own conclusion. I guess this method of unveiling the story from the historian’s point of view underscores the “discovery” part of the title, but I found it somewhat distracting. It also occasionally read like Ridley was not quite sure about her interpretation but was trying very hard to convince us that it’s right. However, sometimes I was left with the feeling that she was over-interpreting complex events and emotions based on a single phrase or instance of word choice.

One thing that she seems certain of, however, is what happened when Baret’s gender was made known to the crew (namely: gang rape.) While I don’t disagree with Ridley that this is a possible – even likely – interpretation of events, I do think that it is based on a lot of inference, and little-to-no direct evidence, and I was not a fan of the way she kept bringing it up as if it were fact. She was similarly prone to describing Baret’s emotions and thoughts as if they too were documented, when she had already told the readers that Baret left behind no journal or account, and had in fact criticized previous historians of the expedition for interpreting what primary sources were available based on their own personal and cultural prejudices. Again, I didn’t often disagree with Ridley’s conclusions, but thought it a bit disingenuous the way they were presented as being truth rather than interpretation.

While I did have some issues with the means of telling, overall I did quite enjoy the book. Any story engaging enough to shine through the pages and capture my interest despite my issues with the narrative style is one worth reading. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: I think this will be interesting to a lot of history readers, primarily those interested in the age of exploration or the history of women in science.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Leeswammes’ Blog, A Librarian’s Life in Books, She Treads Softly, Silly Little Mischief
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: In April 1768, two French ships, the Boudeuse and the Étoile, rode at anchor off the coast of Tahiti as 330 officers and men took their first shore leave in nearly a year.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. January 23, 2012 7:58 am

    Oooh, I really want this one. It’s too bad she presents interpretations of facts as actual facts, but it definitely sounds reading anyway.

    • February 23, 2012 3:20 pm

      Yeah, it was interesting enough that I was able to overlook the style. And at least it was obvious enough that I could tell what she was doing, not like she was trying to slide one past me.

  2. January 23, 2012 10:20 am

    Nice review! I also found myself more glued to the book than normally happens with non-fiction.

    The way of giving other sources and then her own interpretation didn’t bother me, but it wasn’t necessary for me. I just wanted a good story that was as close as possible to the truth. :-)

    • February 23, 2012 3:22 pm

      I’m not as picky about sources when it’s a topic that’s well documented, then I just want the good story. But in a case like this where there’s relatively little that’s actually known, I get more concerned about what’s fact and what’s speculation.

  3. January 23, 2012 10:28 am

    I hadn’t heard of Jeanne Baret either, but now this book is going on my TBR list.

    • February 23, 2012 3:23 pm

      I wonder if she’s more well known in France or French speaking countries? I don’t know much about the French side of things in general during the napoleonic wars and age of sail…

      • February 24, 2012 10:26 am

        True, not something I learned about in my history classes!

  4. January 23, 2012 10:40 am

    Oh, this sounds really interesting. I must read it!

  5. January 23, 2012 1:54 pm

    This sounds a little too dry and scientific for me.

    • February 23, 2012 3:25 pm

      No, not at all! The science parts are mostly background, the real story’s in the history.

  6. January 28, 2012 12:53 pm

    I felt almost exactly the same way about the way Ridley interpreted and made jumps. I was willing to let it go for most of the book, but her writing about the gang rape and the aftermath rubbed me the wrong way. I don’t think she’s necessarily wrong… but she seemed more confident than the evidence warranted.

    • February 23, 2012 3:29 pm

      That’s good to hear that I’m not alone… I can quite my finger on why, but her tone during that section was weirdly off putting.


  1. Book Review - THE DISCOVERY OF JEANNE BARET by Glynis Ridley
  2. Review: ‘The Discovery of Jeanne Baret’ by Glynis Ridley

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