Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Discovery of Jeanne Baret

In 1766, Jeanne Baret, the daughter of illiterate French peasants, disguised herself as a teenage boy in order to join the first French expedition to circumnavigate the world. She signed on as assistant to the famous botanist Philibert Commerson—who also happened to be her lover. The journey made the twenty-six-year-old, known as “Jean Baret” to her shipmates, the first woman to ever sail around the globe. Yet very little is known about this extraordinary woman, whose accomplishments were considered—when they were considered at all—to be subversive, even impossible for someone of her sex and class.

In THE DISCOVERY OF JEANNE BARET: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe (Broadway Books; December 6, 2011), acclaimed author and professor Glynis Ridley upends the myths about Jeanne Baret’s pioneering journey. When Ridley began researching Baret’s life, she quickly noticed that certain implausible “facts” kept appearing. Most glaringly, almost every published source asserted that no one, not even Baret’s cabinmate and longtime lover Commerson, realized her sex until the ships made landfall in Tahiti, eighteen months into the voyage. According to the accepted story, the officers and men of the ship were greeted by Tahitian women offering sexual favors, while Baret found herself surrounded by a group of native men who easily saw through her disguise.

Unraveling the conflicting accounts recorded by Baret’s crewmates, Ridley played historical detective to piece together the real story: how Baret’s true identity was in fact widely suspected within just a couple of weeks of embarking, and the painful consequences of those suspicions; a newly discovered notebook, written in Baret’s own hand, that proves her scientific acumen; the thousands of specimens she collected, most famously the showy vine bougainvillea; and her awkward, sometimes dangerous interactions with the men on the ship, including the well-meaning commander who covered up the truth about Baret and downplayed her accomplishments.

Because Baret was a working-class woman, the French establishment found it easy to dismiss her scientific contributions. Not even a single plant that she discovered is named for her, and she was quietly written out of history—until now. Anchored in impeccable original research and endowed with indelible characters and exotic settings, THE DISCOVERY OF JEANNE BARET offers this forgotten heroine a chance to bloom at long last.

"When you consider that the entire historical record for Jeanne Baret comprises little more than a birth certificate, a marriage certificate, a death certificate, and a handful of mentions in other people’s journals, Glynis Ridley’s achievement in producing an entire biography of the woman is quite something. Not just that, but Ridley’s skills as a researcher give us such a strong impression of the times Baret lived in, the people who surrounded and influenced her, and the geography through which she traveled, that, for most of the book, we hardly notice, or care."

Glynis Ridley is a professor of English at the University of Louisville and a British citizen. Her previous book, Clara’s Grand Tour: Travels with a Rhinoceros in Eighteenth-Century Europe, won the Institute of Historical Research (University of London) Prize.

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