I don’t often read non-fiction, but every so often a gem of narrative non-fiction comes along that sparks my interest. The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe by Glynis Ridley did just that. I’ve always had a fascination with the high seas, exploration, and pirates to be perfectly honest—and Ridley’s novel certainly delivered on the first two.
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.
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 26-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. 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.
Blurb adapted from the publisher, Crown
Jeanne Baret was not a name I knew, although I’m no expert in scientific history or French explorations, but Glynis Ridley’s writing and storytelling drew me in immediately. You don’t have to be a history buff or a science junkie to enjoy this true tale. Ridley weaves the various threads with excellent skill, and sets the historical stage with well-written prose that reads like historical fiction. She combines descriptions of French life in the 1700s, Baret’s personal history, and the expedition’s official record with the more probable events that occurred.
I was initially drawn to the book because as a young child, I fell in love with another gender-bending nautical tale, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi. It was a YA fictional tale of a young girl who dons trousers and shirts and becomes on of the crew against a ruthless, horrid Captain. Therefore, the story of Jeanne Baret, although much different and a true story, had a strong appeal.
The official record states that Commerson is the official naturalist on the Expedition, but due to his deteriorating health, Ridley portrays how Baret was likely doing most of the field research and discoveries. According to an NPR article, “Ridley says, most notably the bougainvillea plant, named for the Etoile‘s commander [Louis-Antoine de Bougainville]. The plant named after Baret, however, has since shed her name. Commerson identified the plant while botanizing with Baret in Madagascar and named the genus Baretia. […] If you look up the genus Baretia today, however, you won’t find much. The genus has been reclassified under the name Turraea.”
As noted in the publisher’s blurb, “Ridley unravels the conflicting accounts recorded by Baret’s crew mates 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.”
The Discovery of Jeanne Baret is incredible well-researched, although Ridley takes a lot of liberties where there are gaps in historical knowledge. Ridley sets forth many explanations and hypotheses for the historical outcome, while commenting on what more likely occurred. What I found most impressive about Baret herself was how strongly she pursued her passions; it was illegal for a woman to be on a navy ship, and uncommon for women to study the sciences, but Baret did both.
There are a couple things that I felt lukewarm about: Occasionally the source references felt a little heavy-handed, but once I was familiar with Ridley’s style, the story read smoother; the other thing that bothered me, is that there is a lack of primary sources for Baret’s own thoughts and feelings, yet Ridley often inferred that they were documented. I think in some cases, yes, it can be safely assumed that one woman hiding in a crew of 300 men would have felt insecure and alienated, however, there were other cases where Baret’s thoughts and feelings cannot be so easily surmised. There was a particular emphasis on when and how the crew ‘discovered’ Baret’s true gender, and the supposed ‘rape’ or threat thereof.
As a review in the Wall Street Journal states, “Throughout the book, actions, thoughts and moods of which no record survives are reported with authority. And so we’re privy to the ebb and flow of the lovers’ relationship, and we see Baret cowering in her hammock with a loaded pistol to protect herself from shipmates. Phrases such as “is tempting to imagine,” “can be easily guessed at” and “is not incredible to suppose” appear often. And once such suppositions are planted, they have a habit of emerging later as demonstrated fact. Perhaps most troubling, there is no real evidence that the book’s horrifying climactic scene, involving rape, occurred at all.”
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed The Discovery of Jeanne Baret. I think it was well researched, well-written, and well-organized. It did not read like typical non-fiction (possibly due to the frequent speculations Ridley made) but I love that there is the story of another strong woman documented in history. Similar to Ridley, it’s regretful that none of Baret’s own journals have been discovered, save for Commerson’s research documents. I really appreciated and enjoyed the additional material Ridley included: photographs, afterword, chapter notes and references for source materials and illustrations, and a source bibliography. The paperback also had acknowledgements, index, and reader’s guide.
- Article in The Star with an in-depth summary of the story
- Article/interview with NPR (cited above)
- Review in the Wall Street Journal (cited above)
Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.