Synopses & Reviews
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, a working-class woman whose scientific contributions were quietly dismissed and 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.
"An 18th-century peasant expert in countryside herb lore, Jeanne Baret posed as a young man to gain the post of assistant to the naturalist aboard France's first global seafaring expedition in the 1760s. Ridley (Clara's Grand Tour: Travels with a Rhinoceros in Eighteenth-Century Europe) quickly crushes modern romantic ideas of the golden age of exploration: there were rat-scrounging days of starvation and crowded quarters, and significant abuse suffered by Baret at the hands of crew members who at first suspected, and eventually learned, her sex. Since Baret left no memoirs, Ridley carefully parses the few written accounts of the expedition, while occasionally making assumptions about her emotions and acts. Baret's harrowing journey also included scientific discoveries, such as of a plant--named bougainvillea in honor of the expedition's commander--which she believed would cure gangrene, and a Patagonian shrub to help treat the crew's rampant venereal disease. Ridley captures both the optimism that inspired Baret's groundbreaking and courageous trip and the sordid reality she encountered. 8 pages of b&w photos. (Dec.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright PWyxz LLC)
In a deeply researched and engagingly written narrative of science, adventure, love, and an unprecedented voyage of discovery, Ridley reveals the true story of Jeanne Baret, the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.
About the Author
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.
Reading Group Guide
Reading group guide for The Discovery of Jeanne Baret by Glynis Ridley
About the book:
The Discovery of Jeanne Baret tells the remarkable story of the first woman to circumnavigate the globe—who did so disguised as a man. In 1766, a French peasant named Jeanne Baret disguised herself as a teenage boy in order to work as principal assistant to the naturalist Philibert Commerson, royal appointee to the first French circumnavigation. The expedition commander, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, had no idea that the two shared more than simply a passion for botany—they were in fact lovers. In his memoirs, Bougainville reported that Baret was finally exposed by the natives of Tahiti, who recognized a woman where her countrymen had not: a version of events that went largely unchallenged for more than two hundred years. But three members of Bougainville’s crew provide a very different version of Baret’s exposure. Their unpublished accounts suggest that the truth of what happened to her is more brutal than official chroniclers cared to admit.
About the Author -
Glynis Ridley is a professor of English at the University of Louisville. A British citizen, she holds degrees from the universities of Edinburgh and Oxford, where she specialized in eighteenth-century studies. Her last book, Clara’s Grand Tour. Travels with a Rhinoceros in Eighteenth-Century Europe won the Institute of Historical Research (University of London) Prize.
In order to provide reading groups with the most informed and thought-provoking questions possible, it is necessary to reveal important aspects of the plot of this book, including the ending.
If you have not finished reading The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, we respectfully suggest that you may want to wait before reviewing this guide.
1. Baret’s family, typical of eighteenth-century peasants, did not expect to travel further in their lifetimes than their nearest market town. Imagine that this was your experience. How would you feel about traveling in your own country? How would you feel about traveling overseas? What would ‘overseas’ mean to you? Without access to newspapers, books, or television, where would you get your ideas from?
2. How many herbs, or plants of any kind, can you identify in their natural, growing state? Would you trust your ability to recognize different medicinal plant species if your life depended on it?
3. One of the epigraphs to the book is an excerpt from a poem by Susan Donnelly that reimagines the Biblical account of the naming of creation from Eve’s perspective. Why do you think Ridley chose to begin her book with this quotation?
4. If you were an eighteenth-century middle- or upper-class woman, what obstacles would hinder your pursuit of an interest in science? Why might you try to overcome those obstacles? Do you find it surprising that the first woman to complete a journey around the world was not wealthy, but rather was a peasant of limited means? Why or why not?
5. Do you find it hard to understand why Baret gave her son to the Paris Foundling Hospital? How did you feel about her choice at this point in the book? Do you think this experience affected her later choices, and if so, how?
6. If La Giraudais, captain of the Étoile, had not offered Commerson and Baret his cabin, do you think that Baret would have jumped ship at Aix? Why or why not?
7. Measure out the size of the Étoile – approximately 100 feet by 30 feet – and compare it to the size of your reading group’s regular meeting place. If you were one of 116 men living in that space, how quickly do you think you would recognize something different about Baret?
8. Vivès was first sent to sea when he was 7 and apprenticed a ship’s surgeon at age 12. How do you think this helped shape his character, social skills, and particularly his relationship with Commerson?
9. The brutal ceremonies surrounding Crossing the Line seem to have an equivalent in modern hazing practices practiced everywhere from fraternities to the military. Why do these practices continue, and are they impossible to eradicate? Do your answers help you to understand what went on when the Étoile crossed the equator? How so?
10. Supporting characters in the book include Aotourou, Bougainville, Nassau-Siegen, Véron, and Vivès. Which one of these men interests you most and why?
11. Sailing the Pacific, expedition members frequently went weeks without sight of land. The ships were therefore self-contained floating worlds. Modern research has shown that men press ganged (that is, tricked or forced) into naval service were in the minority. The majority of the ‘ratings’ (or ordinary seamen) were volunteers.
12. What factors do you think motivated most of the crew to sign on for a circumnavigation of the globe, entailing at least three years away from home? How much do you think Baret’s motivations resembled or differed from the men’s motivations? In your view, do any jobs exist today to fulfill the needs of people in similar situations, with similar motivations? If so, what are they?
13. Were you surprised that a group of men finally raped Baret on New Ireland or did you have a horrible feeling that this was likely? What influenced your expectations of how her life on board ship might conclude? Do you think that this possibility entered the minds of Commerson and Bougainville, and if so, should they have done more to discourage her from participating in the expedition?
14. Are there any reasons to believe that Baret’s marriage to Dubernat was anything other than a marriage of convenience? What might he have offered her that would be appealing after her experiences and past relationship?
15. When she returned to France in 1775, Baret had been away for nearly a decade. What do you imagine were the biggest readjustments Baret had to make to life back in her native country?
16. Out of all the places that Baret went ashore and visited happily (Rio de Janeiro, the shores of the Strait of Magellan, Tahiti, Mauritius, Madagascar) which one would you most like to go to and why?