29 December 2011
Post 463: The Discovery of Jeanne Baret
I'm always impressed when an author manages to make history engaging. Not that history is boring, but it's difficult to write what daily life was like in an interesting manner in order to set up for the more fantastic events that sometimes happen in the lives of individuals. Not only has Ridley accomplished this, but she has also managed to include how and why she interpreted primary documents the way she did.
I think this is something the up-and-coming scholars have trouble with. I know I had difficulty in interpreting historical information when I was working on my undergraduate thesis, but it is also important to realize that historical figures were people first and people always have ulterior motives in how they present themselves and why. This kind of analysis is just as important for interpreting information today. That trusted news source? They're still trying to sell you something, whether it's a subscription to the Sunday newspaper or to hold your interest long enough so that they can charge their advertisers premium prices for airtime. Hell, even I would sell you something if I could figure out how to monetize this blog in a way that would be a) worth the effort and b) not so incredibly annoying as to drive more traffic away than my crazy ideas already do.
I think people sometimes forget that even the most honest and well meaning of human beings are still human beings. We want to believe that our heroes are like the ones in the movies, but the movies are even less realistic than the news, although the line seems to get blurred more and more every day. The truth is not always what is presented to us in whole cloth; a story can easily be edited to give us details we will find inflammatory or mollifying depending on where it has been cut. So for those who think history is boring, I would say it depends on your view of it. While the excitement may not reach National Treasure heights,* for some of us there is still the thrill of the chase as we put on our detective hats to determine motive and opportunity for historical figures altering details of the story and present day historians for presenting them a certain way.
In the case of Baret, there were several persons on the ship who were determined to obscure when her identity as a female was revealed to them. Yet Ridley has sorted it our and given a plausible and likely reason for when Baret's identity was revealed; what it meant for Baret, her crew mates, and the officers on board; and how it affected the rest of her voyage and life. The chance to finally give Baret credit for her botanical and other scientific work must feel a bit like tracking down a surviving relative in order to return a family heirloom. While some of its original meaning may be lost, the story of its return becomes part of the legacy. Although Ridley has taken liberty in imagining how Baret must have felt, I took less issue with this than I would have otherwise because it made real the danger she undertook to accomplish what she did.
My review can be found on Goodreads.**
LibsNote: Review copy provided by publicist.
*Give or take Nicholas Cage's deadpan "acting" style.
**Since this post is fairly reviewy I will be adapting it for my review on Goodreads, just fyi so you don't feel like you're wasting your time if you choose to read both.