I was recently sent a review copy of ‘The Discovery of Jeanne Baret’ by Glynis Ridley, a fascinating investigation of the life of the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. The story is made even more remarkable by the fact that Frenchwoman Jeanne Baret came from an impoverished rural background, and disguised herself as a man in order to join the global expedition.
Glynis Ridley’s investigation is not the first time this story has been told, but through a mixture of groundbreaking research and a certain amount of supposition, she has managed to flesh out Jeanne Baret’s life, and give her a more three-dimensional identity.
Here I talk to Glynis Ridley about Jeanne Baret, and about the story behind her book.
Who, in just a few words, was Jeanne Baret?
She was a Frenchwoman of very humble origins, born in 1740, who, in her twenties, became the lover of one of France’s most celebrated botanists, and hatched an audacious plan to disguise herself as a man so that she could follow him to sea on the first French circumnavigation of the globe. Women weren’t allowed on board French naval ships at the time.
The expedition commander, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, wrote a 500 page bestselling account of the circumnavigation on his return. And he devotes only one paragraph to Baret, though she worked tirelessly in all weather conditions, from the Strait of Magellan to Tahiti, to try to maintain the charade that she was a man. We remember lots of explorers but few people have heard of Baret. This seemed wrong and I wanted to see if she could emerge from the historical shadows and be given some credit.
Oooh. Where to start with that question! Can I begin by challenging the assumption about historians and their reliance solely on empirical evidence? Historians disagree as much as any other group of researchers about what was a policy failure or success, and about historical cause and effect. One of my favorite historians is Simon Schama and in his marvelous book Dead Certainties he tackles the question of what historians can truly know and what they do. My book, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, is non-fiction, and I’ve adhered to the same standards of proof as any history writer. My period of specialisation is the 18th century, so everything I say about literature of the time has to be grounded in a completely accurate historical context. Sometimes, in literature classes, professors will find students who think that they can just say a text means anything – I promise you and your readers this isn’t how literature professors conduct themselves – we have to have evidence in the material under consideration for everything we say. You can probably guess by now that this is something very dear to my heart and I could get into a long account of how ‘literature’ and ‘history’ are not that different really. But I think you get the idea.
|The only known image of Jeanne Baret, with revolutionary cap.|
It is deliberately ambiguous. It’s about what Jeanne Baret herself discovered – about the world, and it’s about her crewmates’ discovery of her true identity, but most of all I hope it is about the reader’s discovery of her.
You are sometimes very hard on Baret’s companion, Philibert Commerçon. What brought you to this conclusion about a man who also took enormous risks to his personal and professional reputation by smuggling a woman on board the ship?
I certainly didn’t set out with this as a deliberate strategy. There is much I find admirable about Commerson. He had a passion – for botany – and he chose to pursue that, even though it brought him into conflict with his father. He was smart, and could obviously be enormously good company (that’s why I included the information on how Commerson impressed Voltaire, because it proves that Commerson could be truly engaging when he chose). But I think I disagree that he took risks in smuggling Baret aboard ship. At no point did she implicate him in the scheme and, since he expressed himself as surprised as anyone by the revelation of her true identity, and since no one on the expedition had any means of investigating Baret’s and Commerson’s life together before the expedition, all he had to do was insist he was innocent of any subterfuge and no one had any way of disproving this. Put crudely, Commerson was not an obvious target for physical assault in the way that Baret was. And had he wanted to make her both comfortable and respectable (in terms of the morals of the day) he would have legitimized their relationship by marrying her.
How easy or difficult was it to research this story, and to find new information? What was your most satisfying find?
It would actually be possible to write a whole bookshelf’s worth of non-fiction (or fiction!) about the Bougainville expedition, given all the journals that survive. The most difficult thing for me was making sure I was progressing the story, while simultaneously providing enough context for readers to understand the hierarchy of life aboard ship, or the status of women in the natural sciences, while also trying to keep the focus on what things must have been like from Baret’s perspective. My most satisfying find was undoubtedly MS884 in the Commerson archive in the Museum national d’histoire naturelle. It is the ‘Tables des plantes medicamenteuses’ – the list of medicinal plants, that I assign to Baret for the very first time. Realising that this notebook contains precisely the sort of folk wisdom about the healing properties of plants that herbwomen kept a closely guarded secret was one of those amazing moments researchers dream about. I thought, “this is Baret’s notebook”.
What mysteries remain from Jeanne Baret’s life? What information do you wish you could have found?
On the cover of The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, readers will see the only known image of her. But as I point out in the book, the image is something of an oddity because she is wearing what came to be known as the red liberty cap of the French revolutionaries, and she is dressed in a striped fabric that those who research the history of clothes can tell was not popular with sailors until the 1790s. When I was writing the book, I chanced to go around the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and I saw an illustration of the first curator of the Oxford botanical garden, Jacob Bobart, represented holding a sheaf in his hand – just like Baret is in the illustration. The caption of the Bobart illustration at the Ashmolean said that such poesies were a symbolic shorthand for the medicinal value of a botanical garden. So whoever produced the mysterious illustration of Baret wanted to link her with the French revolution, the sea, and the healing power of plants. They knew more about her than any printed source at the time could have told them. I’d love to understand the French Revolutionary connection.
What do you think is Jeanne Baret’s legacy?
Since the book came out, University of Cincinnati botanist Eric Tepe has kindly named a new species of Solanum (the genus that includes potatoes and tomatoes) in her honor: Solanum baretiae. This is the first time in nearly 250 years that a plant name has been published in honor of Baret. I think that if learning her story inspires more research into the history of neglected historical figures, that would be marvelous – especially if those individuals have been written out of history because they weren’t from the class of history writers. If her story inspires just one person to think that the seemingly impossible may in fact be possible, then that would be quite something. And on a personal level, after completing the biography, I try to grumble less about days when I get cold and wet, because no one is asking me to go and clamber about on the shores of the Strait of Magellan in bitter cold, knowing that tomorrow will probably be more of the same. Baret endured so much. I think her story is inspiring.
Click here to purchase ‘The Discovery of Jeanne Baret’ by Glynis Ridley if you are in the US, here if you are in the UK, and here in France.
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