Book Review: The Discovery of Jeanne Baret by Glynis Ridley
January 10, 2012 18 Comments
Genre: 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
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.