At first glance, “The Discovery of Jeanne Baret” seems to be just another nonfiction novel, detailing the events that occurred in a deceased female’s lifetime. However, Glynis Ridley evolves this seemingly simple story and breathes life into Baret’s impressive life. At the end of the introduction to this novel, Ridley makes a statement that sets the tone for the rest of the book: “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.” Talk about a declaration for gender equality and the power of women!
But, the story of Baret is more than just a giant banner advocating women’s strength and determination. The reader first meets Baret as she grows up in her humble hometown in the Loire valley of France. Her parents were in the lower class of individuals during the mid-1700s and worked as day laborers. While Baret should have been subject to the same fate as her parents and expected to die in her early twenties, she possessed a skill that allowed her to escape this fate. Knowledgeable about plants, seeds, and their medicinal uses, Baret belonged to an ancient order of herb women who were often secretly sought out for their knowledge by doctors, surgeons, and sometimes students of botany.
Also in France, Philibert Commerson grew up in completely different conditions. Pampered by the success of his father, Commerson was given the chance to succeed in education and prompted to enter law by his parents. However, Commerson, known for his stubbornness, pursued a different course in life. Through his determination and risk-taking demeanor, he was able to fill his days with his one true love: botany. Commerson eventually married an even richer woman and settled down in Toulon-sur-Arroux, only a couple of miles away from Baret’s location. It was through a chance meeting that these two characters joined forces, exchanged knowledge, and set off on a journey that would allow Baret to become the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. Filled with adventure, romance, and a testament to the mental, emotional, and physical strength of a singular woman, this novel allows the reader to adopt Jeanne Baret as their new role model.
While the facts are fascinating and the plot intoxicating, Ridley continues to counter facts previously assumed about Jeanne Baret and her expedition around the world. Not possessing any prior knowledge about the events surrounding Baret’s life, I was not surprised by any revelations made by Ridley. However, the novel was still compelling and allowed me into the life of a truly remarkable woman. “The Discovery of Jeanne Baret” is not your typical biography and if you are not familiar with Baret’s story and accomplishments, I highly recommend reading this novel.
**Note: If purchasing the paperback edition, do not forget to read Ridley’s afterword. It truly allows you to appreciate the ending of this remarkable story.