The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: Book summary and reviews of The Discovery of Jeanne Baret by Glynis Ridley

The Discovery of Jeanne Baret

A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe

By Glynis Ridley

The Discovery of Jeanne Baret
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  • Published in USA  Dec 2010,
    304 pages.

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Book 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.

In 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. Because Baret was a working-class woman, the French establishment found it easy to dismiss her scientific contributions, and she was quietly 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.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

“Starred Review. Thrilling and incensing…Woven throughout this gripping story are Ridley's piquant insights into eighteenth-century exploration, botany, taxonomy, biopiracy, and sexism. Baret could not have asked for a more exacting and expressive champion. Ridley is incandescent in her passion for the truth." - Booklist

"An inquisitive biography of the first woman to circle the globe by sea… Ridley has definitely done her homework in recognizing Baret as an overlooked but important historical figure." - Kirkus Reviews

"Ridley captures both the optimism that inspired Baret's groundbreaking and courageous trip and the sordid reality she encountered." - Publishers Weekly

"A mesmerizing read ... The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, woven from impeccable research and keen detective work, introduces readers to a memorable eighteenth-century female scientist who deserves to be remembered for her contributions to botany, and for her extraordinary courage and perseverance. Readers will be pulling for Jeanne Baret as she circumnavigates the world, her pistol ever ready by her side. The world of eighteenth-century seafaring expeditions comes alive in this fine book." - Robert Whitaker, author of The Mapmaker’s Wife

"A powerful story of a brave and intelligent woman who battled against the odds to live the life she wanted. Finally, Jeanne Baret's contributions to botany and world exploration have been brought to light in this wonderful book." - Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

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Reader Reviews

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Rated 3 of 5 of 5 by Pamela B. (Madison, WI)
The Discovery of Jeanne Baret by Glynis Ridley
The book was not what I expected. I was expecting more of a "story", but the book is more of a history text. The historical information was interesting and helped explain why some of the events would have been perceived differently in the historic context. The information was hard to get through and I felt the what I wanted to know (the story of the first woman to sail around the world) got bogged down in too many details.

Rated 3 of 5 of 5 by Robert C. (Fremont, CA)
The Discovery of Jeanne Baret
Jeanne Baret, was a French peasant during the Age of Enlightenment. As a herb woman she had great knowledge of plants and began an association with the noted botanist, Philibert Commerson, and when he joins an expedition to circumnavigate the globe, she accompanies him, but disguised as a young man since women were considered bad luck on French ships. The author's research is meticulous, and so the book reads like an academic thesis. While there are some documents relating to the voyage, including the captain's log, many parts of Jeanne's life are undocumented, so there is a lot of 'might have', 'could have', 'must have'. Fictionalized, this could be a great film, but here it is somewhat dead in the water.
The published edition includes some black & white photos, but no map. I would have found a map most helpful, especially when they are navigating the Straits of Magellan.

Rated 3 of 5 of 5 by Kat F. (Palatine, IL)
A good textbook
I looked forward to receiving this book, as it seemed a good start to expanding my non-fiction reading list. I'm sorry to say I was disappointed. Although well research and well written, unfortunately it was very dry reading and had little to do with the life of Jeanne Baret. I understand this is due the lack of historical information about her specifically and women of that time in general, but I think it would have made a much better book if the author had "expanded" on the facts available and turned the book into a work of fiction based on true events.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Marion T. (Palatine, IL)
The Discovery of Jeanne Baret
After reading the introduction to this book, I was very excited to start the read. However, the book started to read like a thesis That being said, there is a lot of information about the world as it was during this time. Subjects that I had very little information, but enjoyed finding out about. The author certainly did the research required to make it a complete account. I would have liked to know more about Jeanne Baret as a person since she reads more like a one dimensional character than the courageous person that she was. Understandably the author could not do that since it is stated that there is very little truly known about her other than what is stated. Possibly written as a historic fiction would make a wonderful movie.

Would have like to have a readily available map of the time to trace the journey.

[Editor's Note: Marion was reading an 'advanced readers copy' of this book, printed some months before the final copies - it is quite common that elements such as maps and photos are not included in the advanced copies but are included in the finished version.]

Rated 3 of 5 of 5 by Laura A. (Jeremiah, KY)
OK but nothing exciting.
I found the book "The Discovery of Jeanne Baret by Glynis Ridley" disappointing. I had expected it to me more interesting that it was. The textbook writing style did little to draw the reader in. I think Jeanne Baret was probably a very interesting person and wish that her story had been told in a way that was as well. I would not recommend this to others to read.

Rated 3 of 5 of 5 by Janice H. (Savage, Minnesota)
An Awesome Journey
‘The Discovery of Jeanne Baret’ documents the story of a French woman who boards a ship as a man in the 16th century to travel around the world in three years. The author presents theory after theory of why this woman among all of theses men would not be safe on such a trip. Hardships she would endure ranged from possible gang rape if discovered by the 117 men on board to loneliness, starvation, and endless work hours. Only her employer (a scientist) knew of her true identity and he kept it a secret from all. Although rumors were spread early in the expedition, they remained only rumors for most of the journey. The author obtained my interest with the theory that a person” irrespective of the hand dealt by fortune, can have as much curiosity about the world as another.” Jeanne Baret was born to poverty and was destined to live and die within 20 miles of her home. Then “when she was twenty-six years old she would be living in a fashionable Paris apartment, organizing papers and preparing natural specimens” for a botanist. I particularly enjoyed the description of Paris in 1764 with its castles and royal palaces and consumed by a thirst for knowledge and trade. However, I tired of the author’s desire to document and analyze accurately all events on the ship’s journey and characters and found it exhausting to sift though all the he said, and who’s log said what (with the captain’s log lost). But the description of the thousands of seal lions sunny on the rocks and the new plant discoveries throughout the journey made it worth reading this book to the end.

...24 more reader reviews

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Glynis Ridley is the author of Clara's Grand Tour: Travels with a Rhinoceros in Eighteenth-Century Europe, which won the Institute of Historical Research (University of London) Prize. A British citizen, she is now a professor of English at the University of Louisville.

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