The Discovery of Jeanne Baret Summary and Reviews

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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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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Ginger K. (Ballwin, MO)

For the sake of knowledge
Well researched and downright fun describes "The Discovery of Jeanne Baret". The book is a treat for anyone interested in plants and animals as we circumvent the globe with this indomitable heroine and company. A stowaway posing as a young male on the ship she suffers hardships and perils described by the author in sometimes agonizing detail..................such was her devotion to discovering new plant life. This is realism and history shown through a personal story at its best.

Teresa R. (Fort Collins, CO)

A skillfully told tale
Academic historian Glynis Ridley did formidable research on the state of scientific inquiry and social class in 18th century France for this book. Yet her account of the overlooked heroism and privations suffered by Jeanne Baret is laid out in a lively and readable narrative—by turns fascinating and appalling. Meticulously citing historical records, Ridley bears witness to Baret's courage and accomplishment despite years of brutish living conditions and physical and psychological assaults, not to mention the loutish behavior she bore from her lover, Philibert Commerson, the botanist whose career she helped advance and for whom she embarked on the round-the-world voyage.

Reading this book in the comfort of an easy chair brings awareness of the ease and privileges enjoyed by Western women of today. In solidarity with Ms. Baret, one should consider reading the book in low candlelight, perched on one’s haunches in a bare, drafty room. Either way it’s compelling and engrossing non-fiction.

Lesley F. (San Diego, CA)

A Great Discovery!
WOW! The research is deep and accurate, the story fascinating, as a new page in women’s history is written. The author has managed skillfully to make sense of very scant (what else) information about the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. Women’s Studies groups and sailing fans as well, will enjoy this one immensely. This will soon be on our social history book group’s list.

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.]

Jeanne M. (Vancouver, WA)

Masquerade on the High Seas
I was hoping that this would be a first person historical novel, but was delighted to find that the third person historic revelations were fascinating and led to a more thorough expose' of the connections to the explorers and their travels and travails.

Jeanne Baret's disguise as a boy allows her to be an assistant to a botanist. In this role she collects and classifies plants a t a time when the system of classification was emerging.

This is a well researched account of the voyage and discoveries that occurred, told in a way that captures the reader.

Jean O. (DePere, WI)

The Discovery of Jeanne Baret
The Discovery of Jeanne Baret is a story of an obscure woman the 1700's. The book is based on history that is patchy and contradictory. The author's research appears to be extensive and thorough. The contradictions and missing pieces in the journals, ship's logs and other records that were researched lead the author to suppositions and logical outcomes. It is a scholarly piece of work. In my opinion this is not a book for everyone.
I did enjoy reading it.

...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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