Thursday, September 13, 2012

Review: The Discovery of Jeanne Baret

The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas,
 and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe
By Glynis Ridley 
Crown December 2010
252 pages

The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe

Jeanne Baret is a woman who accomplished incredible things in her time, but you didn’t learn about her in school. She left behind no written records of her thoughts, but her actions were integral to the fields of botany, medicine, and zoology. She was a woman of poor upbringing who is only represented in history with a birth certificate, marriage license, and death certificate. But Jeanne Baret was the first woman to brave the perils of the open sea (and its sailors) on a long expedition. She was the first woman to circumnavigate the world.

Baret was a poor woman who had something invaluable to the eminent botanist Philibert Commerson. She was a local herb woman and knew things about plants that Commerson would not find in any book. As they worked together, she became his mistress. Their lives and work became so intertwined that when Commerson was commissioned to collect samples during a voyage around the world, Baret disguised herself as a boy and accompanied him as his assistant. Their journey through new waters to encounter new plants, peoples, and lands is set down in careful detail in The Discovery of Jeanne Baret.

This book is one where the author makes a lot of assumptions. Because we have nothing directly from Baret and very little about her, Ridley has to pull a lot of loose details together. While this can be frustrating, I wonder what alternative we have in constructing historical narratives. Certainly it is important for us to learn about important historical figures, even if they fail to leave us their own versions of their stories. So perhaps this is the only way we can learn. Writers who use this technique assume that their readers are intelligent and willing to work for answers. While Ridley comes to many conclusions that seem tentative, she has to make decisions about what she thinks happened. And she assumes that you can likewise make your own decisions and will do the work to support your conclusions if they do not match hers.

At times, this book seems to lack some heart. Despite the evidence and the assertions that Ridley makes, it is difficult to feel that we really know our heroine. The men in her life who did leave personal records behind are not exactly shining stars themselves, so it is difficult to connect with them. But I have to conclude that reading books like this one is important. We need the ability to celebrate the men and women who achieved remarkable things in their lifetimes, even if they have been largely ignored in the annals of history. Jeanne Baret should be known, and remembered, for her courage, for her excellence in her field, and for the commitment she had to the people and subjects that mattered most to her. Even if we don’t know the details with certainty, it matters that we know that this one remarkable woman was the first to defy the social conventions of her time and sail around the world. 


  1. This sounds like a fascinating topic. However it does seem like it should either be backed up by firm research or develop the character richly as one would in a novel.

    1. It's tough because there is just so little to go on. On one side, you have criticism because the author is doing too much speculation, but then readers feel like Baret is not fully realized.

  2. Maybe this would have been better as a historical fiction novel? For me, the lack of primary sources would probably ruin my enjoyment of it as a straight history book.

    1. make a great point. The author is a professor of English, so I wonder what led her to attempt the research route as opposed to a novel.