The Discovery of Jeanne Baret Synopsis
A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe
The year was 1765, King Louis XV had ordered the first French expedition around the world, appointing eminent botanist Philibert Commerson to seek out medicines, spices and other resources that could give the French an edge in the ever-accelerating race for empire. Desperate not to be left behind, twenty-six-year-old Jeanne Baret – Commerson’s peasant-born mistress, and a deeply knowledgeable plantswoman in her own right – disguised herself as a teenage boy and signed on as his assistant.
As the ship stopped at strange new lands, the secret lovers disembarked to collect and classify plants unknown to Western science, including the showy vine bougainvillea. But it wasn’t long before the crew members on the cramped ship began to suspect her true identity. With this incredible true tale of intrigue on the high seas, Glynis Ridley offers a forgotten heroine the chance to bloom at long last. (Amazon)
What really hits you when you start reading The Discovery of Jeanne Baret is the level of research that author Glynis Ridley has undertaken prior to putting pen to paper.
In this book Ridley presents for the reader what she believes took place in the life of this remarkable woman. Ridley refers to historical artifacts to support her position when available, but she does not let their absence stop her from telling a complete story of Baret’s life and of the lives of those she interacted with. Where there is little to no documented evidence she bridges the gap with deductive reasoning. At times she puts herself in the position of Jeanne and conveys her likely actions, thoughts and motivations.
It is Glynis Ridley’s conversation style that makes The Discovery of Jeanne Baret a compelling and fascinating read.
While I thoroughly enjoyed following the historian/researchers logic with full knowledge that some of what was presented as though it were fact was educated speculation verging on historical fiction, I do note some other reviewers considered this a weakness.
What cannot be questioned is Ridley’s ability to set an evocative scene.
As they skirted a guano-encrusted beach colony of tens of thousands of the birds, Baret, Commerson, and the prince likely crossed paths with one or more of the two-foot-high penguins running full tilt in its distinctive side-to-side gait as it headed back to its onshore nest. A more improbable grouping is hard to imagine, as these eighteenth-century travelers — a woman dressed as a man, a man pretending not to know that his assistant was a woman, and a second man dressed more richly than most women — stared down at a black-and-white bird under half their height that defied them to go any further. Between the austere color palette of the penguin and the brilliant velvet of the prince, the strait has perhaps never hosted a meeting of greater contrasts.
In The Discovery of Jeanne Baret Glynis Ridley does not glorify the acts of this woman or her fellow adventurers. She presents the unpleasant aspects of history in context but retains an objectivity that I respected.
BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 4 / 5
Genre: Non-Fiction, Historical, Action-Adventure
Another title by Glynis Ridley: Clara’s Grand Tour – Travels With A Rhinoceros In Eighteenth-Century Europe
* I received this paperback copy from Crown Publishing, Random House for review purposes. My receiving this title at no cost did not impact my ability to express my honest opinions about it.