Short Thoughts: "How [Not] To Do It"

And to those of you who realised the complicated Python joke I just made: congratulations. Now go outside and get some fresh air. I’ll join you momentarily.

At the library a couple of weeks ago, I picked up a copy of The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, by Glynis Ridley. While the book sells itself nicely — the cover is attractive; the blurbs impressive; and the subject matter highly appealing as we’ll see — why I actually picked it up is an old Beverley Nichols book on gardens — one of many he wrote and they’re all wonderful light reading if you’re looking for something so English it creaks — where he — or possibly the character he wrote to stand in for Aldous Huxley? — tells the story of the discovery of the bougainvillea in tropical seas.

The story involves the simultaneous discovery that the assistant of the botanist credited with the discovery of the plant was discovered to be a woman. The story as Nichols tells it — or retells it; I don’t have the book to hand — is pleasingly vague and focussed mostly on the discovery of the plant rather than on anything to do with the young woman…although it does suggest she had a less than pleasant afternoon with the sailors on the island where the bougainvillea bloomed so plentifully.

Ridley has discovered this story, too — why not, after all? It’s a great story! Enlightenment France, botanical discovery, trans-oceanic voyages, cross-dressing — what’s not to like? Well, lots, frankly, at least in Ridley’s handling.

I must say, in all fairness, I didn’t finish the book. But there are reasons and I’ll get there in as short a fashion as I can. To put it as briefly as possible: Ridley commits just about every version of the sin of presentism in writing history as it is possible to commit. In addition to this, with the self-announced, loudly trumpeted goal of giving Jeanne Baret, the young cross-dressing botanist, her voice and agency as an individual back, Ridley only redefines the role of victim and Baret really moves nowhere.

Admittedly, this is not entirely Ridley’s fault. Baret left only questionable written evidence behind — some papers in the botanist Commerson’s collection have been tentatively reidentified as in her hand — and no cache of letters, diaries, or notes from any point in her life, to say nothing of the climactic voyage of discovery have been found to help along the curious researcher.

Despite this, excellent biographies have been written by historians with equally shady or scattered or shadowed evidence — Annette Gordon-Reed, anyone? To say nothing of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich — she had more evidence, yes, but the skull-sweat needed to make it into anything useful is just staggering.

I wish I could say that Ridley had done the same kind of work in rehabilitating Baret and bringing her back to the central role she may deserve in the botanizing of French ships in the tropics. Instead, she reduces Baret to the status of a hanger-on, even falling into the fatal trap of putting unjustified words, thoughts, and emotions into her experience to justify what to Ridley seems like the obvious. Well, yes — it is the obvious to a 21st century reader (at least, a certain type of 21st century reader), but not so much to an 18th century French peasant woman. She probably lived with a very different type of obvious and to pretend anything else is to do a radical disservice to her.

I really wanted The Discovery… to be something better than it was; when it descended to the level of imaginary psychobiography, I was done.

What Baret did — even when seen through the lens of other contemporary diaries and accounts — was phenomenal, even if you only consider what she did in France: moving from the countryside to Paris with her richer, better-educated lover; leaving her family behind permanently in the south; taking over housekeeping of a Paris household; bearing a child and leaving it at an orphanage at her lover’s insistence — and then the capstone experience (if you wish to see it like that) of choosing to cross-dress and accompany said lover on a massively dangerous ocean voyage with no promise of pay-off. Are you kidding me? You couldn’t write a novel that good! And to reduce Baret’s choices and motivation to those of “following her lover” and “rape trauma” as Ridley does is deeply disrespectful.


Rant over.

And before you go on with your day, please enjoy this lovely photo of Beverley Nichols with some of his cats.