Glynis Ridley’s The Discovery of Jeanne Baret is the extraordinary tale of the first woman to circumnavigate the globe – as the purportedly male assistant to her botanist lover. Not only was Baret a woman, she was a working class woman from a region where the average life expectancy was twenty-six and where a herb-woman like herself could expect to live and die where she was born, in abject poverty.
It would be a brave woman in any day who was prepared to go to sea disguised as a man – the only woman in a crew of 300 sailors but in 1765, when longitude hadn’t even been discovered, setting off into uncharted waters in the hope of discovering new lands would have terrified most men. As well as facing disease, starvation and the unimaginable hardships borne by sailors of the age, Baret risked gang rape and quite possibly death if her true identity was discovered.
It’s hard to really appreciate what it’s like to go to sea for three years – to dine on rat and boiled leather, to watch the man you’ve followed across the seas treat you like a packhorse dismiss your feelings when nubile Tahitian beauties offer him sex, to be near drowned in effluent and beaten with oars in the name of ceremony to mark the crossing of the equator, to still have to bind your scabby flaking breasts tightly with bandages for fear of discovery even as you cried with the pain of your raw skin – but Ridley brings Baret’s time on the Etoile to life.
A sensitive and skilled portrayal of a remarkable woman, whose story has been obscured by class-conscious and chauvinist history, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret is clearly a labour of love. Ridley obviously reveres her heroine, whose life she has researched so meticulously but then it would be hard not to respect Baret. Hers is the story of a Burgundy herb-woman who circled the globe with a gun at her waist, discovering new flora, traversing the pacific, seeing volcanoes, manta rays, dolphins and rainforests and blazing a hard trail to follow when, statistically she should never have travelled more than a few miles from where she was born. As Ridley says, “Hers is, by any measure, a remarkable life”.
Even the expedition’s captain Bougainville, to whom Baret’s presence was undoubtedly an inconvenience, asks how it was possible to “discover the woman in the indefatigable Baret, who was already an expert botanist…with so much strength that the naturalist [Comerson – Baret’s lover and supervisor] had called him his beast of burden”.
Baret is the very picture of strength, both mental and physical, but she is also that rare creature – a person light years ahead of her time. In a time when it was considered immoral for ladies to study botany because it involved exploration of the reproductive organs of plants, Baret was busy cataloguing things that France’s most distinguished botanists had never even seen.
Ridley’s approach to Baret is both rigorous and accessible and though she gives Baret’s life a great deal of human colour she is not given to wild speculation – everything is pieced together with due care and attention.
Perhaps the best thing about this book though is that it is so truly original. Ridley has plucked Jeanne Baret out of obscurity and given her a voice so her remarkable tale of courage, tenacity and adaptability, even in the direst of circumstances, can finally be told. This book is a hidden gem, well worth seeking out if you’re up for a tale of life on the high seas.