Book Review: The Discovery of Jeanne Baret by Glynis Ridley

The Discovery of Jeanne Baret by Glynis RidleyGenre: non fiction, history
I got this book: for review from the publishers, Broadway Paperbacks (Crown Publishing Group)
First Published: 2010 (Paperback edition December 2011)
I read this in: English, the original language
Number of pages: 304
Rating: 5/5


The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: What it is About

This well-researched biography is about a French woman, Jeanne Baret, who in 1767 dressed as a man to navigate around the world on a ship that had 300 men and no (other) women aboard.

The story starts with the background of Jeanne, a rural (peasant) woman with a good knowledge of the medicinal use of plants. She is hired to teach Philibert Commerson, a botanist of some standing, everything she knows about herbs and plants.

She begins a relationship with him and later accompanies him around the world, when he is given an appointment to gather plants from everywhere, especially those that are commercially useful. She dresses as a man, as the assistant of Commerson, because women are not allowed on ships.

Although the crew is suspicious of Baret, when looking for plants on the islands and mainlands they come across, she works harder than many men would be able to.

Later, she’s found out and there are some contradictory stories on what exactly happens. The book also describes Baret and Commerson’s further life after they finish their travels.

The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: What I thought

5 stars (out of 5) This book is well-written and researched, to the extend that I almost felt I was watching a documentary with original filmed material. There are detailed descriptions of life as a poor worker in rural France, life as a rich man, what women could and could not do, Paris in the 1760s, travelling for months at a time on a ship with 300 others, encountering natives, and much more.

The information is based on log books, contemporary biographies by people who were present on board, as well as other contemporary writings from which the circumstances, behaviour and considerations of Baret and Commerson were deduced.

Because of this, some of it reads as (and is!) historical fiction.  I read this book a chapter at a time (about 25 pages each) which was a nice amount of time to be immersed in French/naval life of the 18th Century.

I you have an interest in history, botany, or shipping history, you will love this book! There is of course a good amount of discussion about why Jeanne dressed as a man, the rumours aboard that she might not be a man after all, and the later discovery that the rumours were right, as well as some conjecture of what may have happen after the discovery.

I enjoyed reading this book a lot, I learned many new things about the topics mentioned above. Although the writer has obviously done a thorough investigation in many of the topics, including the consultation of original (French) materials, the book is very readable for the average interested reader.

Extras: This was my first book for the Transcending Gender Reading Challenge.

Transcending Gender 2012 Reading Challenge A-Z Books Challenge

About Judith
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18 Responses to Book Review: The Discovery of Jeanne Baret by Glynis Ridley

  1. Tes says:

    Wow this sounds like a really amazing book and a fascinating story. I love stories of strong women. It sounds extraordinary to travel around the world like that dressing as a man. So cool! I can’t wait to read this 🙂

  2. Carol N Wong (@Carolee888) says:

    Thank you so much. This book is staying on my “To Buy List”!!!


  3. Sounds absolutely fascinating, Judith, although I am a bit confused from your review what sort of book this is. You first label it as ‘non fiction’, but in your review you state that “some of it reads as (and is!) historical fiction” (my italics). Does that mean that parts of this biography are fictionalized?

    • Leeswammes says:

      Anna, it *really* is non-fiction BUT there are bits in that you could call dramatised, i.e., that read as historical fiction (and because the author cannot know exactly how it was, it *is* (historical) fiction). But it’s only very subtle, like “She would have wondered how to solve X problem. She could do P but then there was the issue Q, or she could do A but then maybe B would happen”. So, it’s the author’s ideas on how Jeanne Baret would have been making decisions (for instance).

      I did *not* mean something like “She put her hand on his shoulder and whispered: “But I want to come along. I cannot stay behind on my own. ” If you get my drift. 🙂

      • Ah, I see, that’s clarified it: the author speculates about her subject’s state of mind.
        That’s not nearly as bad as the “she put his hand on his shoulder and whispered”-thing, but it still make me doubtful whether this is really my kind of book. On the whole I like my history books to be just that: history. Anyway, I will keep the title in mind as I am both interested in travel and in the 18th century.

      • Leeswammes says:

        Anna, I think this book is very much your thing!

  4. RFW says:

    At first, I thought there might be a little romance, but not so? Sounds like a good way to find out about a little known adventurous woman. Thanks.

  5. Amy says:

    This book sounds so interested and Jean Beret is a fascinating and strong woman. I think I would have panicked if I was dressed like a man and the crew was still suspicious of me! The author covered quite bit in 300 pages, too!
    I am kicking myself because I turned down an opportunity to review this book. But I’ll put it on my wishlist with a note about how much you enjoyed it. Fantastic review, Judith, Thank you!

  6. Suzanne says:

    I’ll admit the title didn’t spark my interest but I do like your description of the story.

  7. This is the kind of book that makes you want to research more of the subject yourself. Definitely on my wishlist; thanks for the review!

  8. Pingback: La científica que dio la vuelta al mundo vestida de hombre «

  9. Pingback: Glynis Ridley – The Discovery of Jeanne Baret « Fyrefly's Book Blog

  10. Pingback: Book Review - THE DISCOVERY OF JEANNE BARET by Glynis Ridley

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