Saturday’s wonderful Facebook author event with Glynis Ridley has been posted below. This version has been reformatted so that the links appear in the appropriate places. I have omitted our encounter with technical difficulty. You can read the original version online.
Looking for an adventure with which to kick-off your summer reading? Look no further than Jeanne Baret’s journey on the Bougainville expedition! The Discovery of Jeanne Baret can be purchased online from independent bookstores at IndieBound.
AP: Welcome to our conversation with author Glynis Ridley! Allow me to introduce to you Glynis…
Glynis Ridley is an Associate Professor at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. Her research interests are in 18th-century studies, the history of rhetoric, and animal studies. Glynis was awarded the Institute of Historical Research Prize (University of London) for her book, Clara’s Grand Tour: Travels with a Rhinoceros in Eighteenth-Century Europe. Please welcome Glynis Ridley!
GR: Thanks for the kind introduction. I’m delighted to be here.
AP: Glynis, I have thoroughly enjoyed your book and am excited to have the opportunity to discuss it with you. Here is my first question…
You first learned of Jeanne Baret from your husband who was preparing a paper about French explorers Louis-Antoine Bougainville and Jean-Francois de Galaup, comte de La Perouse. You mentioned you found almost nothing documented about Baret. Where did you begin your research? How long before you had enough information to articulate this biography of Baret’s life?
GP: My husband introduced me to Baret back in 2001, showing me the single paragraph in Bougainville’s journal that mentions her. When I realized the implications of Bougainville’s journal entry – that a woman disguised as a man had apparently remained undetected on board an sailing ship for a year and a half until frightened into revealing herself by the natives of Tahiti – I was just suspicious. It seemed improbable that a woman could successfully maintain her disguise in the close quarters of a sailing ship – a view only reinforced when I found out the dimensions of the ship she sailed on. The Étoile was 102 feet long and 33 feet wide with a compliment of 116 men. So when I was thinking about a new book project back in 2008, I kept coming back to Baret’s story as something that intrigued me. I began by reading everything I could find published about her (which is not much). Then I read the published accounts of the expedition – these have been collected and reprinted by various French publishers in the last two decades. They made me realize that Baret’s story was also the story of the first French circumnavigation of the globe, and I began to think that a book might be possible. The book was contracted at the end of 2008, on the basis of a 40-page synopsis (so the contours of Baret’s story had already emerged for me during that year). I completed research – and writing the first draft – across 2009. Then the first half of 2010 was devoted to editing – at which stage I had to take out any speculations I didn’t have good evidence for. You’ve just made me realize that’s 3 years of trying to find solutions to puzzles about Baret’s life and about the expedition.
AP: Only eight written accounts of Bougainville’s expedition exist. One account belongs to expedition volunteer, Charles-Felix-Pierre Fesche. The journal of Charles-Felix-Pierre Fesche contains a lot of flowery, period-specific language. I am assuming all the journals were written in this way. How did you decipher the language of the 1700’s?
GR: Some of Fesche’s style is distinctively his – some is period convention. For example, this was an age when men and women with literary aspirations often peppered their writing with classical allusions in an attempt to show they knew their stuff. Travel narratives (both fiction and non-fiction) were very popular in the 18th century and Fesche undoubtedly toyed with the idea of publication. This may help to explain some of his literary flourishes. I’ve been specializing in study of the 18th century since I was an undergraduate and, since I read 18th century writers for work and pleasure, their language probably sounds less strange to me than to someone reading such writing for the first time. I promise you that if you were immersed in it for even a few weeks, it would start to seem perfectly normal!
AP: Have you had the opportunity to view each handwritten account of Bougainville’s expedition?
GP: Yes. But I couldn’t have done this without my husband. Let me explain. He is a professor of French and, like me, he is also an 18th century scholar. When I realized that there was more material I needed from particular archives, I could always split the work with him: armed with a digital camera, he has spent many hours on my behalf taking pictures of some of the handwritten accounts. (I should stress that this was always with the agreement of the relevant museum or library.) The result is that, sitting at my laptop right now, I’m a couple of clicks away from images of the manuscript pages of Bougainville’s notebook and Commerson’s herbarium, among other texts. Between the two of us, we’ve seen and/or taken digital photos of all the main texts referred to in the book.
AP: Pierre Duclos-Guyot was the son of the captain of the Boudeuse, one of Bougainville’s ships. Pierre traveled on the other ship (the Étoile) with Commerson and kept a joint journal with him. You mention this joint journal is now known for the watercolor paintings it contains. Are Commerson’s paintings of newly discovered plants and animals available for viewing, either in-person or online? (pg. 7)
GR: Let me address that previous question from before I lost the feed. Commerson’s papers are housed at the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle in Paris. Let me make a distinction between his manuscript notebooks, the herbarium he complied as a teenager, and illustrations and paintings he made in his expedition notebooks (or instructed Paul de Jossigny to make on Mauritius). All of these can be viewed in person at the Muséum though, as is common in all institutions that care for such unique historical artifacts, Muséum curators will want to know your reasons for needing to see the collection, and will want to satisfy themselves that you can handle them appropriately. Only a handful of images from Commerson’s expedition notebooks have been reproduced in books; even fewer have been digitized. That’s a great pity because it would be wonderful to be able to access this material online. When I was thinking about illustrations for the book, I found that only two pages from his teenage herbarium were circulating on the web, and only a single image he instructed Jossigny to make on Mauritius was available. The Muséum national d’histoire naturelle made three images from Commerson’s herbarium available to me but only one (showing pressings of hyssop and marshmallow) was finally used in the book. Unfortunately, color plates increase the cost of a book so the images in the book are reproduced in black and white. I’d love to see more images from the expedition available on the web in their full color glory.
AP: The Wikipedia entry for Commerson states he was clueless about Baret’s sex. How often is it written that he was as shocked as everyone else that Baret was a woman?
GR: This story is everywhere. If you put ‘Jeanne Baret’ into your search engine of choice, you’ll end up finding a very short list of all the books that discuss her, in addition to my own. I’m the only person who has written on Baret to suggest that it is simply preposterous to believe that she concealed her identity for eighteen months before she revealed herself on Tahiti. Of course, when Commerson says that he was as shocked as everyone else, this could be – strictly speaking – true. If everyone suspected that Baret was a woman within a few days of the store ship leaving port, then Commerson was as shocked as everyone else because no one was shocked at all! But I digress. Let me illustrate the prevalence of the Wikipedia information in a different way. A couple of years ago, my husband was at a conference on French maritime history. In one of the coffee breaks, he found himself talking to a retired French naval officer who was familiar with details of the Bougainville expedition. My husband explained to the group that had gathered around them that I was working on a biography of Baret, and that I thought Commerson and Bougainville should not be believed when they claimed not to have known that Baret was a woman before the expedition landed on Tahiti in April 1768. The naval officer was not impressed and insisted upon the truth of the standard version of events i.e. the Wikipedia version. I was astonished to hear about this exchange – but an alternative version of events is clearly still too awkward to contemplate for many people. And there’s a lot of recycled and inaccurate information on the web.
AP: While reading your book, I kept cross-referencing the people and events in your book to people and events related to botanical art. Your references to Jean-Jacques Rousseau prompted me to pull Rousseau’s Pure Curiosity: Botanical Letters off the shelf. The more history I read, the more I am surprised by who knew whom and how intertwined the lives of the big names in history seem to be. When researching a subject, how do you decide which cross-reference to explore? When do you know when to stop?
GR: I wanted to be able to give the reader enough context to be able to understand the importance of a particular character or to appreciate the relevance of certain information. Since you’ve mentioned Rousseau, and his interest in botany, let’s take him as one example in this discussion. He is an intriguing character – not to mention a major figure in 18th century France. Personally, I’m fascinated by his interest in projecting botanical images on magic lantern slides – the magic lantern was a sort of primitive projector. What it projected onto a big screen was typically an image painted on a glass slide. Rousseau enjoyed this as a solitary pleasure, but magic lantern shows were generally popular entertainments for groups in both public and private gatherings. But, you see, I’m already in danger of wandering off topic – I could spend a couple of pages describing magic lantern shows and Rousseau’s interest in them. I could talk about his well-documented interest in botany. But the aspect of Rousseau’s life story that best helps illuminate aspects of Jeanne Baret’s life and experience is the fact that Rousseau had a long term relationship with a woman considered his social inferior, and he persuaded her to give up their five children to the Paris Founding Hospital. Readers need to be able to see the relevance of information to the central character or central storyline. I might want to share my interest in Rousseau and botany, but I have to be aware that readers might be thinking, ‘why is Rousseau important to Baret’s story?’ Fortunately, writers don’t have to make these judgment calls on their own. The first draft of a manuscript might contain a lot of cross-references and apparent tangents. Editors bring a fresh perspective to a text and suggest where information can be cut – and also where it needs to be added. For me, it was helpful to keep reminding myself that I needed to put Baret’s experience at the center of things – in so far as this was possible.
AP: If taxonomy was an obscene topic for women in 1768 (per William Smellie’s comments on page 9), when or how did it become fashionable?
GR: A lot of academics have asked the same question fairly recently and there’s an excellent book on the subject by Ann B. Shteir called Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science: Flora’s Daughters and Botany in England, 1760 to 1860 (1996). We need to distinguish between the ability to talk about the beauty of nature – which was always a fashionable accomplishment for middle and upper class women in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the pursuit of botanical knowledge, including an understanding of the principles of the Linnaean classificatory system. It was only at the end of the 18th century that books aimed at women readers started to take their potential interest in taxonomy seriously. Before this time, it’s possible to find women such as Lady Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, Duchess of Portland (1715-1785) corresponding with Rousseau about Linnaean taxonomy but she was an exception rather than the rule.
AP: I have a book called The Little Botanist (1835) that celebrates a conversation between a mother and her young daughter. In this conversation, the mother teaches her daughter botany. This book was published 69 years after Bougainville began his expedition. When did female botanists stop being “a breach in the natural order of things”?
GR: When The Little Botanist was published, a woman called Marianne North was only five years old. In the course of her life, she would spend fifteen years crossing five continents to illustrate the world’s flora. Anyone who visits Kew Gardens in London – or who checks out their website – will find the North Gallery displays a selection of her watercolors. So the 19th century was a period of greater acceptance of women’s ability to engage with botany. And women’s interest in botany was undoubtedly stimulated by books on the subject aimed at young female readers. From the end of the 18th century, there are Charlotte Smith’s Rural Walks (1795) and Rambles Farther (1796). When the women who read these became mothers and grandmothers, they were better placed to provide instruction in botany than previous generations of women had ever been.
AP: In your teacher’s guide to The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, you include a question about female botanical illustrators and 19th-century women travelers. The question you ask is, “Why do you think these women are not better known?” At the risk of oversimplifying things, I think there are two reasons why they are not better known — 1) During their lifetime, they challenged people’s assumptions about who they should be, and 2) I suspect they evoked a “Who does she think she is?” response from their peers. As a result, people were not motivated to learn more about these adventure-seeking women or to tell others about them. Is the explanation really this simple? How might a historian begin to answer your question?
GR: Your answers are really good ones in terms of thinking about responses to these women during their own lifetimes. But in suggesting this question in the teacher’s guide, I suppose I was thinking that a teacher might ask a class to consider not only the reception of these women by their contemporaries, but their treatment by successive generations of historians. Today, scholars who would define themselves as working from a feminist perspective might say that women like Baret have languished in historical obscurity because of both their gender and their humble social origins. It’s not just Baret’s contemporaries who showed a stunning lack of interest in her story – no 19th or early 20th century writers tried to investigate her achievement. A teacher might ask a class to consider the rise of women’s suffrage movement and the resistance it encountered, with women being told they lacked certain capacities and were somehow inferior. It’s harder than it should be to challenge such views if there are few histories of remarkable women around. Now there are women’s studies departments in colleges that ask students to think about how and why women’s histories have become an accepted part of publishing and teaching. A lot of students who take courses in women’s writing or women’s history today don’t realize how relatively recently these subjects have gained academic respectability.
AP: Glynis, thank you for telling Jeanne Baret’s story and for speaking with us today. While I was reading your book and thinking about cross-references to this and to that, it made my yearning for a floor-to-ceiling white board on a really, really long wall that much stronger. I enjoyed reading your book and I find I am relating other events to the year 1766.
To all of you who have followed our conversation, thank you for joining us. I would also like to thank everyone who has followed ArtPlantae during National Environmental Education Week.
Glynis, thank you for your time today and for teaching us so much.
GR: Thank you so much, Tania. Apologies for the glitch in the middle of the interview but I’m pleased we got it going again. Thanks for inviting me to discuss Jeanne Baret’s story and share it with more people. She deserves to be better known and celebrated and events like this will hopefully help with that.
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