Glynis Ridley – The Discovery of Jeanne Baret
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.
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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