The Discoverer DiscoveredThe Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe.
By Glynis Ridley
New York: Crown Publishers, 2010, 288 pp., $25.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Janet Beizer
When Louis-Antoine de Bougainville set out in 1766 to circumnavigate the globe on behalf of the French crown in the coupled interests of knowledge and empire, his expedition included the necessary contingent of cartographers and doctors, an astronomer, a naturalist, and a crew of 330 officers and men—one of whom was revealed in the course of the voyage to be a young woman in sailor’s clothing. Jeanne—who was known on board as “Jean”—Baret, valet and botanist-assistant to the celebrated naturalist Philibert Commerson, was not known at journey’s start to be his lover. She was in fact not only his lover and companion but also, we discover, the mother of a son born to them and left at the Paris foundling hospital the previous year, and his teacher in all manner of herbal wisdom.
Glynis Ridley’s extraordinary account of Jeanne Baret’s place and fate on the Étoile, the storeship that accompanied the frigate Boudeuse as it rounded the globe, and of the events leading her there, reaches back to her peasant origins in Burgundy and forward to her return to France six years after the expedition proper repatriated. Baret had taken a detour through Mauritius and Madagascar that was marked by the burial of her lover Commerson and her subsequent marriage to a French soldier. Ridley is not the first to recognize Baret’s achievements and to expose her cross-dressing. In fact, Bougainville’s voyage is documented by eight surviving original accounts, four of which speak of Jeanne Baret in some (sometimes conflicting) detail, including the commander’s log (published in 1771) and the naturalist’s journal. Soon afterward (1796), Diderot spun off official accounts of the expedition to speculate on the relation of nature and civilization in his Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage, giving Baret a tangential mention. In the past quarter century she has been the subject of no fewer than five works (including Ridley’s) ranging from historical narrative to biography to fiction (with the generic lines often blurred), and a player in a sixth work, a novel.[i] That the authors of these works span the globe (France, England, New Zealand, Canada, United States) is an indication of how far-reaching and riveting Baret’s story is. Her life has captured the attention and imagination of many, in part because there is a fair amount of information readily available in the original sources but, paradoxically, also because there are so many holes in the available narrative that invite wonder, further research, and conjecture.
In such a case, each author must chart a course through or around all the missing information, make strategic navigational decisions. She might, for example, highlight the gaps as, precisely, gaping; seek archival fill; speculate; novelize. Ridley’s choices include on the one hand extensive research in the archives (which yielded a few new documents and a number of different interpretations of existing ones) and wide bibliographical sweeps in areas including maritime history, navigational and botanical sciences, Enlightenment taxonomy, and eighteenth-century Burgundian sociology. On the other hand, she brings to Baret’s story brilliant interpretive skills that would light up the text of a novel but give pause when they’re applied to a text presented as history.
Ridley’s Jeanne Baret stands out from all other accounts of this transvestic world traveler in two important ways: she appears here for the first time initially as a teacher and leader, an herb woman rich in local women’s ways of knowing the earth and its outcrop, the instructor rather than the pupil of her famous botanist lover. Secondarily, and rather differently, she is represented as a victim, not only of patriarchal historical erasure but also of a literally savage male appetite displayed, in Ridley’s reading of clues and positing of assumptions, as a gang rape on the part of crew members of Bougainville’s expedition. The rape, Ridley claims, resulted in a pregnancy and a second child born to and abandoned by Baret, this time on Mauritius. (Other accounts situate the uncovering of Baret’s rumored female sex on Tahiti, in a scene of undressing at the hands of the suspicious Tahitians; Ridley moves it to the shores of New Ireland, another Pacific island touched upon by the expedition some two months later, and to the hands of the French.) Ridley’s supplements to the life of Jeanne Baret as previously recorded make for a dramatic and compelling story, and a very good read that is architecturally and stylistically breathtaking. But the evidence for these enhancements is not well-substantiated.
Remarkably, Baret, born into the lowest classes of the early- to mid-eighteenth-century French peasantry in the small Loire Valley village of La Comelle-sous-Beuvray, eventually went to live in Paris with an educated man of elevated social class and privilege: Commerson, trained as a doctor as well as a naturalist, was the son of a wealthy lawyer and acquainted with such Enlightenment luminaries as Voltaire, Linneaus, and Queen Louisa Ulrika of Sweden. Even more marvelous, she went on to circle the globe. And that the young girl, the child of day laborers operating in the vestiges of the feudal system at a time when eighty to ninety percent of her people would have been illiterate, came not only to be able to sign her name but to be the author of a manuscript notebook listing the medicinal uses of regional plants, as Ridley contends, is nothing short of amazing.
I would have liked, however, to see more convincing evidence of her authorship, beyond the fact that the notebook, found among Commerson’s papers in the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, was written in a “spidery handwriting” that does not match existing documents clearly attributable to his hand. I wondered why no attempt had been made to match the handwriting to Baret’s signature, which is recorded on her extant certificate of marriage—or if it had, why this fact is omitted from the narrative.
Similarly, I was intrigued by the literary detective work used to arrive at the assumption of Baret’s appalling rape on the island of New Ireland, but not entirely convinced. The Étoile’s surgeon, François Vivès, wrote an account of Baret’s exposure at the hands of crewmen eager to prove the validity of the long-simmering rumor that Commerson’s supposed male valet, self-described under duress as a eunuch, was a woman. His account includes an allusion to a traditional folk song that Ridley reads as a displaced reference to a gang rape. She goes on to interpret a notation in Bougainville’s log of an unnamed crewmember who’d been bitten by a snake and was treated with opiates as a displaced reference to Baret’s assumed rape and post-traumatic stress.
Finally, she provides as evidence that Baret was impregnated by the rape and had abandoned the child on Mauritius the existence there thirty years later of a young man surnamed “Bonnefoy,” a common name that Baret employed as pseudonym in her early life. I abridge because there is no room to do justice to all of Ridley’s textual readings: she performs a dazzling piece of analysis reposing on the application of all the best tools of the literary trade (inference, metaphor, displacement, silencing) to the documents and lacunae of the archives. However, this doesn’t add up to a strong presentation of historical fact.
Still, the narrative is an impressively told tale, one that could less problematically have been presented as well-researched historical fiction. I read it spellbound by the story and Ridley’s characters—not only the main players but also a vividly drawn supporting cast that includes the proto-dandy Charles-Nicolas Othon, Prince of Nassau-Siegen, who had paid to come along for the ride and primped his way around the world; the snarly ship’s surgeon, Vivès; and the indomitably curious Aotourou, brother to the Tahitian chief Ereti, who left Tahiti with the French expedition to sample Paris life for a brief year, becoming the chouchou of salon culture before succumbing to smallpox on his trip home. There are fascinating excursuses through which we learn about the traditional practices of the rural herb women who supplied urban male doctors, apothecaries, and surgeons with drugs and knowledge; the Linnaean system of taxonomy, which is based on the reproductive strategies of plant groups analogized to humans—a system from which it follows that women would have had to be categorically barred for reasons of propriety; and the doctrine of signatures, by which plants reveal God’s purpose on close inspection, so that their medicinal function may be gleaned from their appearance. It is a tribute to Ridley’s craft that these passages, whose primary work is to contextualize her narrative, both move with the flow of her writing and are fascinating in their own right.
At the end, I find myself returning to the book’s title, whose double stake leaves one in a state of uneasy contemplation: what is the relationship between the discovery of Jeanne Baret as object and what she discovered as subject, and how shall we evaluate the overlap? As agent of discovery, Jeanne would perhaps not achieve great fame. She did not discover a continent or a strait or a plant species (or if she did, history has not preserved the record in her name). She did discover the spineless character of her companion, who expressed astonishment when publicly confronted with her female identity, a reaction, Ridley adds, that “could be true only if Commerson failed to recognize in his assistant the young woman who, prior to the expedition, had lived with him in Paris for two years and had already borne him a son.” She surely discovered, in the quieter sense of the verb, a world far beyond the twenty-mile compass that a person of her sex and circumstance might have expected to know in her age, not to mention the more restricted and grim milieu of shipboard life. She may have discovered, in the stronger sense, particular plants, or medicinal functions of plants, while collecting specimens abroad with Commerson. And if Ridley is correct in her intuitions, Baret would surely have discovered a trove of traditional local knowledge and practice of botany, in the sense of revealing or serving as conduit for such knowledge to the naturalist-physician Commerson.
As object, Jeanne Baret was most literally discovered as a woman by the men who stripped off first her sailor’s disguise, then the linen strips that bound her breasts, and inspected her body, whether this happened on New Ireland or Tahiti, at the hands of the French or the Tahitians, and whether the uncovering was accompanied by further violence or not. She is rediscovered here by Glynis Ridley who seeks to give Baret her due as a person of knowledge and skills and an intrepid soul rather than as a specimen of the so-called natural category called “woman.”
That the book opens with a scene of sexual uncovering—a beach, a young woman surrounded by a group of men, a sex unveiled—opens in turn a series of questions for which I have no ready answers. Does all discovery by women, of women, have to be linked to biology, anatomy, physiology? Does all rediscovery of women’s deeds need to be predicated on sexual difference and the play of power? Do women’s achievements need to be framed by an exhibition of the barriers that are overcome? Ridley, closing her introduction following what we might call her primal scene, reflects on
the allure of the idea [Baret] embodies: that one human being, irrespective of the hand dealt by fortune, can have as much curiosity about the world as another. And that, like race and class, gender should pose no barrier to satisfying that curiosity and discovering how far it may take you.
Glynis Ridley’s multilayered rediscovery of Jeanne Baret, discovered on the beach on her voyage of discovery, leaves us pensive.
Janet Beizer is author of Thinking through the Mothers: Reimagining Women's Biographies (2009), Ventriloquized Bodies: Narratives of Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century France (1994), and Family Plots: Balzac’s Narrative Generations (1986), and is currently working on a book entitled Departures: Alexandra David-Néel and the Poetics of Fugue in France (1870-1950). She is a professor of Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard University.