15 February 2016

Review: The Discovery of Jeanne Baret by Glynis Ridley

Review: Discovery of Jeanne Baret by Glynis RidleyDo you know who Jeanne Baret was? I didn't until 2010, when I received a review copy of Glynis Ridley's well-researched biography, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret. The subtitle of book pretty much acts as a summary: "A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe."

If I didn't already know the answer, I'd ask why we never learned about Baret in school, despite her voyage with Louis-Antoine de Bougainville and her collection of thousands of plant specimens from around the world. In any case, we can be grateful to Ridley for bringing Baret's story to a wide audience.

Jeanne Baret was a French herbalist who was hired by botanist Philibert Commerson to teach him about the medicinal properties of plants. The pair fell in love, although Commerson was already married. Soon after his wife died, Commerson was offered a chance join Bougainville's 1766 around-the-world expedition, studying, exploring, and collecting plant life wherever the ships anchored. Commerson couldn't possibly do all the work himself, but the only person qualified to be his assistant was Baret.

Women were forbidden on board French naval ships, so Baret bound her breasts, dressed as a boy, and joined the crew to help Commerson with his scientific work. Baret's story, however, is about much more than a cross-dressing woman bucking the system. The biography describes the ardors of life at sea and the incredible fear and isolation Baret endured while hiding her identity from the ships' three hundred sailors.

Ridley relied on diaries, ship logs, contemporary biographies, and historical documents to tease out Baret's story. I was especially disturbed by differing accounts of the circumstances under which the crew discovered Baret was really a woman. In one account, the revelation is almost humorous, but in others it's downright horrific. What really happened and how did Baret manage to continue to live in close quarters will all those men once her secret was exposed?

In addition I had mixed feelings about Commerson and his complicated personal and professional relationship with Baret. Did he really love her or did he use her? I'm still working that out.

The Discovery of Jeanne Baret introduces us to a brave, resourceful, and intelligent woman who paid an incredible personal price to pursue her science. I was fascinated by the story of her decision to accompany Commerson, her survival at sea, and her eventual return to France. Although Glynis Ridley verges on historical fiction in her biography, the factual account of Jeanne Baret's journey is well worth reading.

A note on the audiobook: Although I've had a copy of The Discovery of Jeanne Baret for about six years, I didn't read it until I was offered the chance to listen to the audiobook for a freelance assignment. The unabridged audio edition (Audible Studios; 9 hr, 37 min) is read by Gabriella Cavallero, who was easy to understand and had a believable French accent, although my overall take on her performance was fairly neutral. My full audio review will be available through AudioFile magazine.

Published by Crown, 2010
ISBN-13: 9780307463524
Source: Review--audio & print (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)


rhapsodyinbooks 2/15/16, 8:02 AM  

Didn't know all that - interesting!

(Diane) bookchickdi 2/15/16, 8:20 AM  

I've never heard of this story, how interesting.

Mae Travels 2/15/16, 8:39 AM  

Sounds like a fascinating tale from the days when the whole world was so new. I recently read a new bio of Humboldt which was equally fascinating.

best... mae at maefood.blogspot.com

bermudaonion 2/15/16, 9:24 AM  

The book sounds great but I think I might like it better in print.

Amanda 2/15/16, 10:23 AM  

I need to read this one too. I have the book and read about 1/3 or 1/4 and thought it was a bit slowish going. But the story is fascinating.

Literary Feline 2/15/16, 2:26 PM  

This sounds fascinating! I am embarrassed to say I am not at all familiar with Jeanne Baret. You have me curious about her now. I will have to look for this one. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

Vasilly 2/15/16, 5:36 PM  

I've never heard of Baret before. Her story sounds fascinating.

Joy 2/15/16, 10:34 PM  

What a great story! I had no idea even though I've done a fair amount of reading about botanical exploration.

Daryl 2/16/16, 12:10 PM  

fascinating stuff .... thanks!

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