Women in the 1700s weren’t supposed to join expeditions, but rules are made to be broken.
Publisher: Broadway (Random House)
First Published: 2010
Date Reviewed: 5th January 2012
In eighteenth century France, a poor herbalist was able to change her life by, firstly, becoming the lover of Commerson, a prominent botanist, and secondly by following him onto a ship that would take them around the world in order to gain knowledge of the new lands being discovered. To join the ship, Jeanne had to pose as a man and this led to both happiness at being able to see what few before had seen, and utter wretchedness as she strove to keep her identity concealed. Ridley presents Jeanne’s story, or at least as much as is known, introducing readers to the woman that science forgot.
Here we have perhaps the only book that details Jeanne, and while it cannot always be reliable – for reasons that will be discussed in due course and doesn’t necessarily equate to a bad thing – the information it provides is of great value and interest. Indeed you need not have a passion for social history or even science in order to enjoy it as most of it revolves around the voyage and there is a lot about the finding of new lands, meaning that there is something here for many. And it means that although Ridley rarely sways from her main subject, when she does it is fascinating in its own right.
There is plenty to devour on maritime activity, and all the hilarity that the mixture of hardened scurvy-ridden sailors sharing space with curly-wigged nobility brings. A good basic knowledge of plant collecting is here too as well as information about the initial meetings between Europe and the Americas. Ridley grants the reader insight into both sides of the story, including primary source material from the French and the thoughts of the native populations in, for example, Tahiti. And reading about the way the French, in their insecure position as travellers by sea, treated the islanders, is often a nice respite from all the information we have about the atrocious treatment that happened after colonisation.
As the theme is of a woman going round the globe at a time when women were nothing, there are a lot of mentions of gender differences as seen from Ridley’s perspective. As a woman herself, Ridley tends to give the full view, which is always interesting. Depending on the gender and opinions of the reader they may find her harsh, correct, or completely brilliant.
Copus asked his [male] guests if any man could identify the herb. None could, and all agreed the tasty addition to the salad must be some newly introduced exotic. Calling in the kitchen maid to see what she might say on the matter, Copus watched the surprise on his guests’ faces as the woman announced the “unidentifiable” herb to be parsley.
Ordinary women know what plants look like in the field and in the kitchen, while supposedly educated male scientists know only what they are told.
In an age of crude woodcut illustrations that only served to obscure identification… even the best [reference books] were inadequate as field guides.
In fact the reader is very much included by Ridley as she employs an intriguing interactivity – describing how a person might find a place today, meaning how the place has changed. By doing this she inevitably draws parallels, which give you pause for thought.
Ridley makes use of evidence and generally tells you where her information comes from, despite a lack of footnotes. However sometimes what she says, or, moreover, her point of argument, is difficult to follow because it becomes mixed in with everything else. It is understandable that when a person writes on a subject they know well, they are not going to explain everything because it may appear to them obvious, but there are a few places where more detail would have been of great benefit. There are also many many mentions of how far, or rather how not far at all, peasants would travel from their homes during their lifetime. This is an issue by itself, but it’s also an issue when the author concludes that Jeanne would have met Commerson when she was away from home and he also. Unfortunately it sounds just as romantised as the ideas of others that Ridley dismisses.
Yet this is where we come to the major point. There is a great deal of speculation in the book. And although Ridley is generally good at saying what is factual and what is not, there are times when it’s not obvious. Now there are two schools of thought here. One is that it is bad to spend a book speculating. However two is that if there is little evidence surrounding a person but an author feels the need to introduce them to the world, then speculation can be forgiven. It’s not as though Ridley is talking about, say, Louis XIV, of whom there is lots of information – she is talking about someone who is interesting for being the first woman to travel the globe but, for reasons of gender equality as well as there simply being no records, remains someone whom we can never know all that much about unless new evidence comes to light. As Ridley is not suggesting she has new evidence, indeed Ridley’s goal is transparent – that of an informer – the speculation must be viewed more favourably and seen as a positive rather than a hindrance.
The work Ridley has done could spawn a new burst of research, thus hopefully less reason for probabilities, and indeed in the afterword Ridley says that since publication a plant has been named after Baret at last.
It is up to the reader, of course, to come to their own conclusions. It’s far from an easy book to continue at times as the content often sounds archaic for the behaviours of humans back then, but the vast amount of information is worth its weight in gold (which is a lot more than can be said for the results of the expedition).
Ridley has done Baret a great service and if further research proves that some declarations are false then so be it – Ridley has propelled Baret back where she should be.
I received this book for review from Crown Publishers, Random House.
January 10, 2012, 10:55 am
Does this mean the book is only out in US/Can? *makes a sad face* It sounds interesting.
Charlie: Just checked, it’s on Amazon UK and the Book Depository, both print and digital. The author’s British but working in America so I’d suppose that anything she writes will be published both sides of the Atlantic by default.