Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Discovery of Jeanne Baret

A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe
By Glynis Ridley
Crown Publishing Group, Random House 291 pgs
Submitted by Random House
Rating: 4 - Read This Book!

Jeanne Baret was an 18th century woman, lover, wife, mother, herb woman, botanist, sailor, adventurer, administrator and sometime cross-dresser. Think about that for a minute. Baret was born a French peasant in 1740, a woman who typically would never travel more than 20 miles from the parish of her birth. A country woman at a time when she would have been chattel, she boarded a ship in 1766 with her lover, the imminent naturalist Philibert de Commerson, and sailed around the world, collecting flora and fauna for the glory of the French Empire. Awesome.

Jeanne Baret was born in the Loire valley in 1740 to an illiterate couple, as 80% of the population at that time were, who rose before the sun and worked hard all day. The average life expectancy was 26. Philibert de Commerson was born near the city of Lyon in 1727 to a prosperous lawyer and estate owner. Much to his father's displeasure Commerson was consumed with a fascination for botany and made it his life's work, traveling across Europe collecting. At some point during the early 1760s Baret and Commerson became acquainted and the naturalist began paying the herb woman to teach him everything she knew. They became lovers during this time and he moved her in as housekeeper. Tongues wagged and soon the couple decamped to an apartment in Paris. Imagine again what this experience must have been like for Jeanne Baret. She had gone from dirt floors, no shoes, no heat in winter and no meat to eat, to a lovely apartment in a beautiful, cosmopolitan city in Enlightenment France, with plenty to eat, no privations. How far she had come!

In 1766 Commerson was charged by the French government to join an expedition to sail around the world in search of lands in which to spread the empire and discover new crops. Luxuries such as coffee and nutmeg would be worth millions if France could grow these commodities domestically. It was to be a trip for a duration of two years and Commerson and Baret would not be separated, besides which she was indispensable to their work. Maritime military regulations prohibited women on board, so our conspirators hatched a plan: Baret would bind up and impersonate a man for the opportunity of a lifetime.

This is such a fascinating story. No one teaches this stuff. Such devotion between Commerson and Baret is rare indeed. Especially on Baret's part. I have two quibbles: 1) things move slowly for the first half of the book, but oh the second half! The second half is well worth waiting for. And 2) I have reservations regarding the author's ascribing mental processes and emotions that might reasonably be inferred but could not possibly be known. However, this is an accepted practice and it enables the facts to become something more than that. They become a human story. I do recommend this book, especially for history buffs and women's studies enthusiasts. Bon voyage!

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1 comment:

  1. This is an amazing story! I look forward to reading it.