Thursday, January 12, 2012

Review: The Discovery of Jeanne Baret

Summary: 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.

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. -- Broadway

I should start this review by stating that I rarely read nonfiction books. I almost always pass them right to Booking Pap Pap, but THE DISCOVERY OF JEANNE BARET: STORY OF SCIENCE, THE HIGH SEAS, AND THE FIRST WOMAN TO CIRCUMNAVIGATE THE GLOBE by Glynis Ridley appealed to me. Maybe it was the book's description about a woman who impersonated a man so she could sneak on a ship and collect botanical samples from around the world... in the 1760s. However, I think it's mostly that the pitch I received from the publisher was just too darn good to pass up. His excitement over this story really came through in his email.

I have to say that I don't think I quite appreciated THE DISCOVERY OF JEANNE BARET like I had hoped. That's not to say that the book wasn't good. I think it's just that I'm not a big fan of most nonfiction history books. I have little patience for a lot of historical details, and as a result, I've decided that this might not be the best genre for me. (I'm honestly starting to wonder if I'm intelligent enough to read these types of books.)

I guess my major issue with this book is that it was very fact-based and filled with tons of details about Ms. Baret's life and times. Most of you are probably saying, "Well, isn't that what you'd expect?" And you're absolutely right! However, where the book got a little tedious to me wasn't in the parts about her life as much as it was in the parts about the science of the times. When I look back at the novel, I was very interested in learning about the challenges Ms. Baret faced, and I thought the descriptions of her life aboard the ship were fascinating. I just admit that I'm not that interested in botany.

And ultimately, I have realized that it's entirely my fault for not appreciating THE DISCOVERY OF JEANNE BARET as much as I should have. Ms. Baret's life story is nothing less than fascinating. She truly was hundreds of years ahead of her time and I was continually amazed by her strength and resilience. Ms. Baret also was a true heroine as well as an important figure in science, and it's just so unfortunate that she wasn't given the credit she deserved (until now!)

I am the first to tell you that I'm probably not the best judge of quality history books; however, I think THE DISCOVERY OF JEANNE BARET is one. This book is extremely well written and I thought Ms. Ridley did a great job of presenting Ms. Baret's story. Furthermore, the author did a remarkable job of researching this subject. That's evident in the amount of details she provided not only about Ms. Baret, but also about the condition of the world in the mid 1700s. Ms. Ridley also managed to present some entirely new ideas about Ms. Baret's life, and she should be commended for sharing this heroine's story with readers.

BARET, I did find the second half of the book to be quite interesting. I am definitely glad that I learned about Ms. Baret's fascinating story. Recommend for fans of history and/or science books.

Thanks to the publisher for sending a review copy of this book.


rhapsodyinbooks said...

I love to read stories about women in history who got away with impersonating themselves as men. Because you have to wonder about going to the bathroom, showers, etc!

Anna said...

I'm not much interested in botany either, but this book sounds very interesting. I don't mind lots of historical details, so long as the book isn't dry.

Unknown said...

Doesn't sound like my kind of book either, but thank you for the review!

bermudaonion said...

My mother would probably enjoy this book, but I'm probably not smart enough for it either.

ChaosIsAFriendOfMine said...

I agree that it was a little dry. I also thought the author made a lot of assumptions about what Baret was thinking/feeling and I didn't necessarily agree with all of her conclusions.

toothybooks said...

i got pulled into accepting this book too by the publicist's pitch! i'm more than half way through it, but i've put it aside for now to give my brain a rest. i don't think i'm smart enough for the book either and i was a biology minor in undergrad! =[ i'm glad i'm not alone though. i was starting to feel terrible that i would have to write a less than stellar review of the book.