Tuesday, December 13, 2011

THE DISCOVERY OF JEANNE BARET: AN AUTHOR INTERVIEW AND GIVEAWAY

  GIVEAWAY ENDED
THE DISCOVERY OF JEANNE BARET
A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the
First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe
BY GLYNIS RIDLEY

ABOUT THE BOOK: 
In 1766, Jeanne Baret, the daughter of illiterate French peasants, disguised herself as a teenage boy in order to join the first French expedition to circumnavigate the world. She signed on as assistant to the famous botanist Philibert Commerson—who also happened to be her lover. The journey made the twenty-six-year-old, known as “Jean Baret” to her shipmates, the first woman to ever sail around the globe. Yet very little is known about this extraordinary woman, whose accomplishments were considered—when they were considered at all—to be subversive, even impossible for someone of her sex and class.

In THE DISCOVERY OF JEANNE BARET: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe (Broadway Books; December 6, 2011), acclaimed author and professor Glynis Ridley upends the myths about Jeanne Baret’s pioneering journey. When Ridley began researching Baret’s life, she quickly noticed that certain implausible “facts” kept appearing. Most glaringly, almost every published source asserted that no one, not even Baret’s cabinmate and longtime lover Commerson, realized her sex until the ships made landfall in Tahiti, eighteen months into the voyage. According to the accepted story, the officers and men of the ship were greeted by Tahitian women offering sexual favors, while Baret found herself surrounded by a group of native men who easily saw through her disguise.

Unraveling the conflicting accounts recorded by Baret’s crewmates, Ridley played historical detective to piece together the real story: how Baret’s true identity was in fact widely suspected within just a couple of weeks of embarking, and the painful consequences of those suspicions; a newly discovered notebook, written in Baret’s own hand, that proves her scientific acumen; the thousands of specimens she collected, most famously the showy vine bougainvillea; and her awkward, sometimes dangerous interactions with the men on the ship, including the well-meaning commander who covered up the truth about Baret and downplayed her accomplishments.

Because Baret was a working-class woman, the French establishment found it easy to dismiss her scientific contributions. Not even a single plant that she discovered is named for her, and she was quietly written out of history—until now. Anchored in impeccable original research and endowed with indelible characters and exotic settings, THE DISCOVERY OF JEANNE BARET offers this forgotten heroine a chance to bloom at long last.
 

PRAISE FOR THE DISCOVERY OF JEANNE BARET:
“Thrilling and incensing…Woven throughout this gripping story are Ridley’s piquant insights into eighteenth-century exploration, botany, taxonomy, biopiracy, and sexism. Baret could not have asked for a more exacting and expressive champion. Ridley is incandescent in her passion for the truth.” Booklist (starred review)

 “A mesmerizing read…The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, woven from impeccable research and keen detective work, introduces readers to a memorable eighteenth-century female scientist who deserves to be remembered for her contributions to botany, and for her extraordinary courage and perseverance. Readers will be pulling for Jeanne Baret as she circumnavigates the world, her pistol ever ready by her side. The world of eighteenth-century seafaring expeditions comes alive in this fine book.” —Robert Whitaker, author of The Mapmaker’s Wife

 “Ridley quickly crushes modern romantic ideas of the golden age of exploration…Captures both the optimism that inspired Baret’s groundbreaking and courageous trip and the sordid reality she encountered.” Publishers Weekly

 “A powerful story of a brave and intelligent woman who battled against the odds to live the life she wanted. Finally, Jeanne Baret’s contributions to botany and world exploration have been brought to light in this wonderful book.” —Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

 “Inquisitive biography of the first woman to circle the globe by sea…Ridley has definitely done her homework in recognizing Baret as an overlooked but important historical figure.” Kirkus Reviews

 “Through skillful sleuthing and impressive research into the life of her eighteenth-century heroine, the courageous Jeanne Baret, Glynis Ridley has produced a gripping tale of romance, male prejudice, exploration, and scientific discovery. A great read—and all the better that it’s true!” Julia Fox, author of Jane Boleyn 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
GLYNIS RIDLEY is a professor of English at the University of Louisville and a British citizen. Her previous book, Clara’s Grand Tour: Travels with a Rhinoceros in Eighteenth-Century Europe, won the Institute of Historical Research (University of London) Prize.

AN INTERVIEW WITH GLYNIS RIDLEY:
Welcome, and thank you for agreeing to an interview for BOOKIN‘ WITH BINGO. Is there any personal information you would like to start out with today?
I’m a Brit living in Louisville, KY, with my husband – also a Brit – and two border collies. We are both professors at the University of Louisville, where I teach English Lit. and John teaches French. He has been in Louisville for over 20 yrs now. I’ve been here since 2004. Before Louisville, I have lived in England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. I specialize in teaching literature of the 18th century – think Defoe and Robinson Crusoe through to the novels of Jane Austen. The period has fascinated me ever since I was an undergraduate and I feel lucky to be able to spend my life working in it. My latest book, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, is about an 18th century French peasant woman who became the first woman to sail round the world.

2.  Where did you get the inspiration or idea for this book?
I have to thank my husband, John Patrick Greene, for the idea. His research includes work on the 18th century French Pacific explorers Bougainville and Laperouse. Back in 2001 we were both headed to an 18th century conference in Australia and he asked me if I knew that there had been a woman on Bougainville’s 1766-69 first French circumnavigation of the globe. Only one fact seemed to be known about Jeanne Baret: that she disguised herself as a man to work as a botanist’s assistant. I was intrigued and wanted to know more. That is where the germ of the idea for the book began.

3. How did the title of your book come about?
I have to explain why that question makes me laugh out loud. The book’s title, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, was the title on the contract. All involved thought it was a neat play on the fact that the book is about Baret’s shipmates discovering her true identity, but it is also about the reader’s discovery of her. Fast forward to the completion of the first draft, and I was asked if I could come up with something punchier – even as short as a single word. I felt pleased when I hit upon Sea Change (but then it was decided this raised too many questions, such as what was changing into what). ‘Name the book’ then became a sort of party game among friends. Kudos to Andrew who took the problem to a conference of medievalists he was attending, where (frivolous) suggestions included Wavy and Hello Sailor! For 24hrs, I tried living with a serious suggestion of Mistress of the Seas until I decided that I just couldn’t stomach it - a book about a woman who spent two years at sea among two ships’ crews totaling over 300 men, and who lived in fear of sexual assault should not, in my opinion, be called “Mistress of…” anything. So after much discussion, we came back to The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, which had been waiting for us all along, and which I really like.

4. Do you see yourself in your characters? Which characters are easiest or more difficult to write?
I have to answer “no” to the first question, because my first book, Clara’s Grand Tour, is the true story of a Dutch sea captain who spent the years 1741-58 displaying a live rhinoceros (then a great rarity) to the crowned heads of Europe. I’m not being facetious when I say that I wouldn’t want to be identified with either an Indian rhino – the central character of the book - or her owner. In my latest book, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, most of the history I am telling takes place aboard a sailing ship with dimensions approximately 102 feet by 30 feet, and home to over 116 men split between four decks. I have nothing but admiration for Jeanne Baret herself, and I like what I know about some of the men she sailed with, but I couldn’t ever see myself signing up for a projected three-year circumnavigation in the 18th century French navy!

The question about which characters are easiest or more difficult to write opens up some very profound questions about writing history, and historical biographies in particular. Some reviewers really dislike it when an author says something to the effect of “given all that had happened to X that day, it’s a reasonable assumption they were feeling happy”. I think it’s reasonable to make such inferences and so, if you know what someone was doing on a particular day, and you understand the context, you can make some good guesses about mood. In this respect, no character needs to be more difficult or easy than another.

5. What books would you say have made the biggest impression on you, especially starting out? What are you currently reading?
I’m a huge fan of Simon Schama’s work and I admire his ability to take a point in history and to lay out the entire surrounding context, for example, in Citizens he tells the story of the French Revolution of 1789 and its bloody aftermath. For biography, it would be hard to better David McCullough’s John Adams. For natural history, I’ll take anything by David Attenborough or David Quammen. Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo richly deserves all the rave reviews it received.

As for what I’m reading right now, I’m dipping into Neil McGregor’s A History of the World in One Hundred Objects. The book originated in a series of short radio programs in Britain so each of one hundred objects discussed has a few pages devoted to it. If you’ve only got a short amount of time you can just read about one object.  And I’ve just started Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. It’s Bailey’s account of her daily observation of a snail that came into her sick room with a pot of violets. It’s a magical book.

6. What is the next or current book/project you are working on?
This is tricky because I’m finalizing a prospectus for my next project, but I don’t want to tempt fate. Can I come back and answer this question when it’s all done and dusted and then you can ask me all about it?

7. What is something about you that you would want people to know about you that we probably don’t know?
I don’t think any of my author bios say how much I love gardening and the challenge of seeing if I can make something grow. Now that is something I feel confident I do share with Jeanne Baret – and with her lover, the botanist Philibert Commerson, for whom she disguised herself as a man to join Bougainville’s expedition. In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan writes about how easy it is to hook gardeners with the prospect of growing something unfamiliar – even temperamental. In my opinion he gets this totally right.

8. Do you own an eReader of any kind and how do you feel about their impact on books, as well as you as an author?
I don’t currently own one. If I was doing as much traveling now as I was doing a decade ago, then I’m sure I would have invested in one. But – I want to introduce a word here that I only just learned in the last year: “skeuomorph”. A skeuomorph is a design element that references or mimics something that was once integral to a product’s function. The designers of eReaders have had to think about skeuomorphs to appeal to book lovers, for example, in electronic pages that can be turned over. I’m the sort of person eReader designers find themselves having to accommodate with these features. I love the physical form of the traditional book – or rather, the many physical forms. And given that it’s both my profession and my pleasure to work with 18th century books – well an eReader is never going to replace the reading experience of turning over old paper and handling a leather bound volume.

But I’m not worried about the growing popularity of eReaders. I think we should all be celebrating anything that lets readers read, where and how they wish.

9. What is your advice to anyone, including young people, who want to be writers?
I think you have to be aware of what books are like in the area in which you aspire to write – I write historical non-fiction but I also read a lot of historical non-fiction. I enjoy this reading but it’s also a form of research for me and I might ask myself questions like, how do writers whom I admire structure their work? What level of vocabulary do they use? How much detail do they go into when they are explaining complex concepts? This isn’t an argument for the status quo, or for a series of hugely derivative productions: it is an argument about starting out with an awareness of audience.

Thank you so much, Glynis, for taking time for this wonderful interview. I do hope all my readers will get a chance to read your new book, THE DISCOVERY OF JEANNE BARET.


GIVEAWAY

THANKS TO JONATHAN AND THE GOOD
FOLKS AT CROWN PUBLISHING, I HAVE 
TWO COPIES OF THIS FASCINATING 
BOOK TO READ OR GIVE AS A GIFT
FOR A PERFECT HOLIDAY TREAT!
  
  --U.S. RESIDENTS ONLY
--NO P. O. BOXES
---INCLUDE YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS
IN CASE YOU WIN!
--ALL COMMENTS MUST BE SEPARATE TO 
COUNT AS MORE THAN ONE!
HOW TO ENTER: 
+1 ENTRY: COMMENT ON WHAT YOU THOUGHT ABOUT WHAT YOU READ ABOUT THE DISCOVERY OF JEANNE BARET THAT MADE YOU WANT TO WIN THIS BOOK

+1 MORE ENTRY: COMMENT ON THE INTERESTING INTERVIEW THAT AUTHOR GLYNIS RIDLEY GAVE. WHAT QUESTION WOULD YOU WANT TO ASK HER IF YOU COULD? GLYNIS SAID READERS ARE WELCOME TO CONTACT HER AT www.facebook.com/authorglynisridley

+1 MORE ENTRY: BLOG AND/OR TWEET ABOUT THIS GIVEAWAY AND COME BACK HERE AND LEAVE ME YOUR LINK
 

+1 OR MORE ENTRIES: COMMENT ON ANOTHER CURRENT GIVEAWAY OF MINE THAT YOU HAVE ENTERED. FOR EACH ONE THAT YOU COMMENT ON SEPARATELY, IT WILL COUNT ON ANOTHER ENTRY

GIVEAWAY ENDS AT 
6 PM, EST, DECEMBER 30
GOOD LUCK!

110 comments:

lag123 said...

I have never heard of Jeanne Baret, but now I would like to learn more about her.

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debbie said...

This sounds like an amazing story. To have went through all she did, and be written out of history is a shame. I would love to read this book.
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I would love to know more about Jeanne Baret.
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Benita said...

I hadn't heard of Ms. Baret, and wasn't sure at first whether it was a true story. I'd certainly like to know more.

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An interesting interview which I enjoyed. The author is interesting and I would enquire about her future books. saubleb(at)gmail(dot)com

Steve Capell said...

Fantastic interview Bingo!I can't believe all that she did. I'm interested in reading the account of this amazing journey. Thanks for the opportunity.

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Connie said...

Hi! I find the storyline fascinating. I would love to read this book and learn more about her and her travels. Thank you for a wonderful giveaway! :)

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Carol N Wong said...

I love biographies and memoirs but this one seems exceptional. I have never heard of Jeanne Baret but she sounds like an extraordinary woman.
I would love to read about her.


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Margie said...

This book sounds fascinating. I've never heard of Jeanne Baret, and I think it is about time she gets her name known. Thanks for the giveaway.
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Margie said...

When I first read the book description, I was wondering if the author was interested in plants. But then I read the interview and saw that question was covered! So I guess I'd ask her if any characteristics of her friends or family find their way into her books.
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rubynreba said...

Jeanne Baret sounds like a very interesting individual. I had never heard of her before.
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Misusedinnocence said...

I love history! Especially people in history who did things unexpected due to their gender, age, etc. This sounds like a great story!

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