In 1766, Jeanne Barret dressed as a man and became the first woman to sail around the world, accompanying naturalist Philibert Commerson. At the close of their journey they disembarked at Mauritius, where Commerson located a ‘charming shrub’ with leaves of many different shapes. He named it Baretia bonafidia for the woman whose clothing, or leaves, concealed who she was. As Jeanne’s biographer Danielle Clode writes, ‘It is an apt plant to name after Jeanne – rare and difficult to find, with very little written about it, and a complex history of misidentification and reclassification’. The plant’s qualities – rarity, elusiveness, an identity difficult to pin down – also reference the challenges Clode encountered in researching and writing In Search of the Woman Who Sailed the World. The records in the archive do not amount to much: ‘a handful of documents, a signature here and there, a reported conversation and descriptions from others, some malicious but mostly admiring. Most of the accounts were written or rewritten long after the event’.

Jeanne Barret, born in 1740 in La Comelle, a village in the southern region of Burgundy, could sign her name, but there is no evidence that she could read or write. If she had penned a record of her life it has, unsurprisingly, not survived. In The Intimate Archive, Dever, Newman and Vickery note that ‘women’s papers are particularly vulnerable to destruction’ as their words and daily lives, so often revolving around the domestic, are perceived as irrelevant. Women’s papers often only survive, Carole Gerson writes in ‘Locating Female Subjects in the Archives’, because they have been ‘preserved in the papers of persons or organisations whose public significance extends value to their correspondents or members’. Another issue, as Gabrielle Carey found when researching her biography Only Happiness Here: In Search of Elizabeth von Arnim, is the destruction of papers by the writer themselves. Elizabeth von Arnim, a bestselling Australian-born author who married into German aristocracy, burned her papers as World War One approached, fearful of the repercussions of her surname. But the destruction of women’s personal papers is, as Dever, Newman and Vickery suggest, ‘more likely to be involuntary, particularly for women writers who tested the boundaries of middle-class domesticated femininity’. This is likely the case for Von Arnim. Carey writes that she was ‘was well aware that her highly unconventional life would attract biographers and, in an effort to maintain privacy, she burned the bulk of her notes and diaries in what she referred to as “the holocaust”’. The dearth of archival material shapes these books, then, in particular ways: Clode carefully combs and examines the existing sources on Barret, and also locates new pieces of information. Carey, deciding not to write another biography (there are already three on Von Arnim), instead crafts a bibliomemoir, examining the entwinement of Elizabeth’s daily and literary lives, and reflecting on how these interact with her own life.

Clode and Carey are accomplished biographers, and both have been shortlisted for the National Biography Award (Clode for her 2018 biography of Australian naturalist Edith Coleman, The Wasp and the Orchid, and Carey for Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and my Family, published in 2014). They invest themselves in their subject’s lives to differing degrees. The opening line of Clode’s first chapter – ‘I always dreamt of a life at sea’ – signals her affiliation with and interest in Jeanne Barret. Clode grew up on a boat, sailing along Australia’s coastline with her parents, and has always wanted to know who Jeanne was, how she travelled, and what happened on her voyage’s end. Three biographies have been published on Barret, but Clode hopes to uncover new information, or see the existing information in a new light. Carey begins like this too, sifting through correspondence in the British Library, ‘searching for clues, for telling details, for that thing that all researchers are always looking for – a story, an admission, a secret that no one else has noticed, that has remained hidden in the archives for over a century, only to be discovered by an Australian interloper’, but she comes to realise that she does not want to add another biography to the three already available. Instead, she wishes to ‘share my love of Elizabeth and her works with readers outside of the scholarly world’. More than this, it seems that Elizabeth, with her determination to arrange her life in such a way as to make herself happy, comes to the fore of Carey’s life at the time that she needs her most. The authors’ searches for these women, and for ways to render their lives that attend to their intelligence and ingenuity, have created two very different, but engaging, stories.

Jeanne Barret’s story begins in the summer of 1740. Her mother died fifteen months after her birth, and her father was a manoeuvre, a manual labourer. A third of French babies born that summer did not survive their first year but Jeanne, despite the severe poverty of her family, did. In 1764 she left her village, planting a seed for her later travels. Clode surmises that she may have moved to be close to her sister, who had a family in Rosières. Nearby, in the town of Toulon-Sur-Arioux, lived the local doctor, Philibert Commerson. He had married a wealthy widow, Marie-Antoinette-Vivante Beau, seven years his senior, attracted by her intelligence as much (no doubt) as her wealth. He described her in a letter to a friend as ‘something of a philosopher’, and persuaded her to botanise with him. In 1762, Antoinette gave birth to their child, but died three days later. Commerson was devastated, and Antoinette’s brother, the local priest, appears to have arranged for Jeanne to assist Commerson with his house, work and the baby.

Clode, here as in many other parts of Jeanne’s story, can only make deductions about Jeanne’s movements through facts about those to whom Jeanne was connected, but the next fact connected with Jeanne herself is significant: on 22 August 1767, she visited a notary in Digoin, 27 kilometres from Toulon-Sur-Arroux, to declare that she was pregnant. Had Jeanne not made this declaration de grossesse, she would have faced a death penalty. That same year, Commerson took his five-month pregnant servant with him to Paris. The evidence of Commerson’s paternity is, Clode suggests, ‘all circumstantial and coincidental – and yet it is compelling all the same’. Jeanne’s earliest biographer, Henriette Doussard, located a child in the Paris archives named Jean-Pierre Barret, who was given to a wet nurse in 1765. However the names of the child’s parents were not recorded, and others have suggested that the son was not Jeanne’s. A year later, Commerson was offered the position of Doctor-Botanist and Naturalist to the King on board Louis Antoine de Bougainville’s expedition around the world, the ‘truly scientific expedition of exploration’. Commerson left Paris for Rochefort, where the Étoile, the second ship under Bougainville’s command (alongside the Bordeuse) was being fitted out. His housekeeper disappeared without a trace, except that ‘a quietly confident young man, Jean Barret, former valet to a Geneva gentleman, appeared in Rochefort, looking for a new position’.

Jeanne blended in on the expedition not just by dressing as a man, but by taking on a man’s behaviour. The English women who boarded ships as men (and there were a few, Clode discovers) ‘are frequently mentioned having to stand up to men, shout them down and show no fear’. Jeanne worked as hard as – if not harder than – a man. When the Étoile docked at the Spanish town of Montevideo in South America, she collected plants, the ship’s surgeon Vivez writes, ‘on the plain, up the mountains two or three leagues away carrying a musket, a game-bag, food supplies and paper for the plants, always 8 or 10 large sheets’. Forty per cent of the nearly three thousand plant specimens collected by Jeanne and Commerson have survived. Some six hundred of these came from the Montevideo and Buenos Aires region and there is little doubt, following testimony from her fellow crew, that these were collected by Jeanne. Yet when collectors were Indigenous, or servants, or women, they were frequently not recorded in the databases of modern taxonomy (nor were many — if any — of the original, Indigenous names for the plants recorded). Jeanne was not commemorated for her efforts with a name either, although she was posthumously commemorated in 2012 through the naming of Solanum baretiae, a species of nightshade.

In 1767, the ships turned to the Pacific, and Jeanne’s story entwines with that of Tahitian man Ahutoru when the ships approached his island. He was sent by his chief Rete as an envoy to the ships, and François Vivez, the ship’s surgeon, Jean-Louis Caro, an officer, describe how Ahutoru ‘laughed, drank, and ate in the mess, his keen interest in women and how he watched the crowd who gathered around him. Everyone told him there was no ayenne, no women, on board, but he clearly did not believe this’. But then he saw Jeanne, and proclaimed ‘Ayenne!’ He insisted on becoming acquainted with her, but in a later conversation, the word mahu – a Tahitian word for two genders — emerged. According to Vivez, Ahutoru’s attitude changed from avid pursuit to respectful friendliness. The Tahitian could see what the French had not after months of working closely with Jeanne. As Clode notes, the Tahitians must have thought the French very stupid.

This is an extraordinary aspect of Jeanne’s already remarkable story, and if I do have a reservation about Clode’s wonderfully detailed work, it is that she did not turn her forensic lens to a discussion of Polynesian culture to help her readers comprehend the world from which Ahutoru came. She notes that ‘thousands of pages of text have been devoted to concepts of property – the spirit of the gift’ – in Polynesian culture, but she does not analyse these texts or bring them to the fore. When referring to the traditional laws of tapu and muru she cites not Polynesian writers and scholars, but Jean-Louis Caro and the Irish-born Frederick Edward Maning, a nineteenth century Pākehā who married into the Hokianga Māori community. Clode explains that she is as ‘blinded by my own cultural and historical blinkers as any of the early explorers. My inability to fathom Tahitian attitudes towards death, violence and sexuality matches my inability to understand eighteenth-century French attitudes towards – well – death, violence and sexuality. She acknowledges that ‘just because we can’t see something, doesn’t mean it isn’t there’, but elsewhere she shows careful research, analysis and deduction. The revelation of Jeanne’s gender, coming halfway through the book, is a turning point, but the narrative does not pivot as smoothly as it could.

This is not to say that Clode ignores the impact of colonisation on Tahitians and their ecosystems. She notes in relation to the 1960s French nuclear testing in the Pacific that ‘leukemia and cancer have become major causes of mortality among Tahitian workers exposed during the testing’. She dwells, too, on ecological destruction. On the same day that Notre Dame cathedral burned, the last female Yangtze turtle became extinct. And while it is ‘always sad to see something old and beautiful destroyed’, biologists live with the grief of lost lives every day. We are, Clode notes, ‘weeping for the wrong cathedral’.

With Jeanne’s secret out, Bougainville was required to attend to the matter. Jeanne confessed all, and claimed she had deceived Commerson, entranced by the idea of a voyage around the world. Jeanne was not punished, but her liberty was curtailed. The ships sailed on, refreshing themselves on the Dutch-occupied island of Buru before arriving at Mauritius in November 1768. Here, Commerson and Jeanne stayed, while Bougainville, no longer in need of a botanist, returned to France with Ahutoru, who became the first Tahitian to discover Europe. Clode located new information that showed that in 1770, a year and eight months after her arrival, Jeanne became a property owner in Mauritius. In 1773, Commerson died after falling ill on a collecting expedition. A year later, Jeanne married a 37-year-old drum major, and in 1775 they returned to France, Jeanne having amassed a small fortune. In 1785, Jeanne was awarded a naval pension for her services.

In recounting the cross-cultural interactions in Tahiti, Clode laments that ‘I thought there would be a lot more natural history in this book … but instead I find myself writing more about the people’. Yet natural history – if this is taken to mean observations of the natural world – is consistently present in Clode’s descriptions and metaphors. During a break from a writers’ festival at Saint-Malo, Clode heads for the harbour. Among a fishing fleets and recreational vessels, most of which ‘gleam white and silver with glass fibre and aluminium, ferro-cement and steel’, her eyes are drawn to ships that ‘stand out, like an old growth of trees in a plantation, against a monocultured forest of silver radio masts’. Once, this forest ‘would have been a veritable ecosystem of ocean-going, coastal and riverine vessels, all grown from oak, hemp and cotton, all built for war, trade and survival, and all curved into exquisite shapes by the pressures of the water and wind that powered them’. Jeanne’s journey across the seas takes the forest, and the soil in which it was grown, with her. Clode opens her book with a description of the paper nautilus, the delicate egg case of the octopus Argonauta nodosa which represents Jeanne’s story, the voyager of this case having ‘long departed, leaving only the most insubstantial evidence of her ephemeral life on the wild seas’. Later, she describes pilot fish, which accompanied some sharks on Commerson and Jeanne’s journey. The naturalist was unable to comprehend the benefit that the small fish offered to the shark, though there was ‘no doubting their loyalty’ when, with the shark hooked and hauled on board, they ‘trailed in the ship’s wake for days as if hopeful of their companion’s return’. Clode suggests that Jeanne ‘might have had a clearer insight into this relationship than Commerson because the pilots clean between the shark’s teeth’. It is a metaphor for the constant care Jeanne offered Commerson, who in turn facilitated her journey around the world, and made provision for her in his will.

The ships of oak, hemp and cotton, the paper nautilus, the pilot fish and shards, illustrate how the natural world powers our narratives as much as humans do. This is also true of Gabrielle Carey’s Only Happiness Here, in which plants, sunlight and earth are critical to the exploration and explanation of Elizabeth von Arnim’s life. Carey’s desire to learn more of von Arnim was ‘born of an intense admiration of her writing, especially her light touch when satirising the men who were continually trying to thwart her irrepressible spirit’. She was also ‘fascinated by her ability to love, laugh and mother five children, while also managing to write a comic novel, on average, every year’, as well as finding time to lie in the sunshine for the sheer pleasure of it. After an annus horribilis, Carey took a year of unpaid leave, with no idea of how she would survive, to write about Elizabeth. From this, she arrived at nine precepts that Elizabeth followed to ensure happiness in her life, despite regular, and sometimes severe, setbacks. One of these precepts, Nature and Gardens, involved (in response to Elizabeth’s bouts of depression) not psychoanalysis or pharmaceuticals, but what is now known as ‘horticultural therapy’, for ‘gardening and growing things, researchers have confirmed, leads to improved mental health’. As well as a salve for her depression, Elizabeth’s German garden brought her fame, money and agency in a constricting marriage. Her garden was not simply a backdrop to her life, but an agent that shaped and propelled it.

Elizabeth was born Mary Annette Beauchamp in Sydney on 31August 1867, the youngest of six children. Her father, a merchant, travelled often, and her mother flourished in his absence. When Elizabeth was three, the family moved to England. As a young woman she attended the Royal College of Music and became a gifted musician. She was uninterested in marriage, preferring ‘playing music, reading and gardening to the idea of finding a wealthy husband’. Her mother, in growing alarm, despatched her on a tour of Europe, which included presenting two organ recitals at the American Episcopal Church in Rome. There, Count Henning August von Armin-Schlagenthin, a German aristocrat whose resumé included ‘army officer, unsuccessful banker and then experimental farmer’, heard Elizabeth playing and fell in love. Three days later he proposed. They married in 1891, and Henning’s sugary overtures towards Elizabeth soured into proprietorial control. She was installed in a Berlin apartment without a garden or green space, and began the first of her escapes, walking the streets with her dachshund, or cycling in the mornings. As Carey notes, ‘escape, often covert and unauthorised, is a constant theme in her books; the women in her novels are frequently in flight, fleeing from men and towards freedom in pursuit of happiness’. These peregrinations in Berlin ceased when she became pregnant with her first child. Henning would not allow Elizabeth to return to London, where her brother was an obstetrician. He disregarded his wife’s difficult birth and postnatal depression, and five months later she was pregnant again.

In 1896, Elizabeth accompanied Henning to one of his properties, an 8000-acre estate known as Nassenheide. On the estate was an empty seventeenth century Schloss, the German version of a chateau. Elizabeth was instantly enamoured, and persuaded Henning to allow her to live there and oversee its renovations. Mirroring her mother’s alacrity on the departure of her father, when Henning departed for Berlin, Elizabeth ‘mostly ignored the renovations going on indoors and spend her days in the gardens’. She found ‘her longed-for privacy and could indulge in her almost religious communing with nature’. When her husband returned, he was enraged that his wife was more interested in her writing than in him, and forbade her from attending her brother’s wedding in England. After being refused four times, Elizabeth escaped from the house at night time and walked for ten miles in the dark to the train station.

In 1898, her first book, Elizabeth and her German Garden was published. A homage to her garden, it quickly became a bestseller, but this was due to the witty, playful character of Elizabeth rather than the plot, conflict, character development, or instances of sex or crime, of which the work was devoid. Due to Henning’s discontent with her writing, Elizabeth stressed to her publishers that the book must be published anonymously. The work was so successful that it was translated into a number of languages, but Elizabeth refused to have it translated into German. After all, Henning was described in it as the ‘Man of Wrath’.

Elizabeth’s writing supported the Nassenheide estate for a number of years, through the births of more children and more postnatal depression, and the arrest, imprisonment and eventual release of her husband on charges of embezzlement from the bank at which he worked. In the summer of 1907 Henning’s crops failed and financial ruin loomed. He and Elizabeth agreed, reluctantly, to sell, but disagreed on where to live next. Years of Elizabeth’s chagrin precipitated in her annoyance at Henning’s habit of washing his false teeth while the family waited at the dinner table. Thereafter Elizabeth relocated to England, and Henning to Prussia. Elizabeth remained sole provider for herself and the children, and Henning whinged from afar that he was lonely. In 1910, Nassenheide was sold and Henning, now very ill, died in August of that year.

Elizabeth felt liberated. She farmed out her children, travelled to the Swiss Alps, set about building a chalet (named Chalet Soleil) and began an intense friendship with H.G. Wells. Whether this was torrid (according to Wells it was of the bed-breaking variety) or platonic (two of Elizabeth’s biographers have their reservations about her role as a mistress) remains unclear. Eventually, Elizabeth tired of Wells and the complications of his relationship with writer Rebecca West. She and Wells parted ways, but reconciled their attraction into a lifelong friendship, and transmuted their experiences into fiction. Elizabeth published The Pastor’s Wife, a novel which ‘many believe to the her most accomplished’, and which also drew on the detritus of her marriage.

Three weeks after Elizabeth and H.G Wells parted, Frances Russell, the brother of philosopher Bertrand Russell, arrived at Chalet Soleil, one of the many friends, relatives, artists and intellectuals invited into Elizabeth’s milieu. Elizabeth succumbed, not without misgivings, to Russell’s advances. H.G. Wells noted that it was an advantageous liaison given Elizabeth’s German name as World War One approached, while Carey also points out that Elizabeth was on the rebound from Wells himself. On escaping to England (burning all those papers before she left), Elizabeth married her lover. However, like her first husband, he turned out to be controlling, a gambler, and slept with seven dogs on his bed. The shock of marriage was compounded by the death of her favourite nephew in the war, then the death of her daughter Felicitas, the circumstances of which are obscure. Elizabeth’s second husband showed no empathy and continued to play bridge. Elizabeth left him three years later when she encountered the most ordinary of clichés: he was having an affair with his secretary.

Modernism is not a movement that springs to mind in association with Elizabeth’s humorous novels, but her networks with English Modernists began early, with the appointment of E.M. Forster, then a student at Cambridge, as a tutor for her children. Elizabeth recognised Forster’s talent, and he became more of an intellectual companion rather than teacher (his duties only took up an hour a day). In Forster’s place came Hugh Walpole, whom Elizabeth did not consider as fine a writer. In 1920, Elizabeth met her younger cousin Katherine Mansfield for tea in Hampstead. This was not, Carey observes, ‘a meeting of equals. Elizabeth was full of robust health, fabulously wealthy and the author of twelve best-selling novels; Katherine was impoverished, constantly ill and had only just published her second collection of stories’. The latter complained, pertly, in a letter to a friend, that ‘“a thousand devils are sending Elizabeth without her German Garden to tea tomorrow” ’. Yet their relationship was a cross-pollination. Mansfield was inspired by Elizabeth and her German Garden to become a writer, and her first published story, ‘Die Einsame’ (or ‘The Lonely One’) was inspired by The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rutgen. Elizabeth also promoted Mansfield’s work in her literary circles, and after that meeting with her cousin she came away, Carey quotes, ‘“inspired to write something that was not filled with gay garlands”’, and the result was Vera (1921), her thirteenth novel. Carey considers it Elizabeth’s masterpiece, a work which ‘precisely and terrifyingly portrays the nature of domestic violence without ever having the perpetrator raise his fist’.

Despite her doubts about involving herself in any further destructive relationships, in the year that Vera was published, Elizabeth met Alexander Stuart Frere-Reeves, a Cambridge undergraduate thirty years younger than her. There appeared to be an instant attraction, and they embarked upon a twelve-year affair, with Frere-Reeve continuing ‘to adore Elizabeth unconditionally with a kind of love that she had longed for all her life’. The affair died out when Elizabeth was 62. In 1939, aged 73, she moved to America to be with her daughter Liebert. In 1940, her final novel Mr Sheffington was published, and optioned for film rights by Warner Brothers. She died a year later, after contracting a persistent flu and falling into a coma.

Where, at the end of Clode’s book, I emerged from a deep and absorbing dive, blinking saltwater and sunshine, by the end of Carey’s I was uplifted, the disaster that is 2020 suddenly seeming manageable. Much of this has to do with Carey’s wry humour, but it is also her biographical subject: a woman with a difficult life who, like Jeanne, was determine to arrange it to maximise her satisfaction. But as I contemplated both books, I sensed a tension in their themes of secrecy and exposure. Jeanne’s freedom came from obscuring her gender, but the quietness, meekness and loyalty of her character hid, like the leaves of Baretia bonafidia, a powerful and confident woman. Carey, meanwhile, after a terrible incident in which her house, advertised as an AirBnB, was used to mount a protracted and internecine identity theft, realises that part of Elizabeth’s happiness comes from her protection of her privacy. Hence the burning of her papers, her use of a pseudonym in her writing and the inscription of Procule Est Profani above the door of her writing retreat in the garden. It translates roughly to ‘Begone, you who don’t belong here’ (I have since contemplated writing this above the door to my own writing space). It seems to me that Jeanne and Elizabeth’s confidence in their selves came from their ability to guard them, because those selves facilitated their passions of travel and writing respectively.

This leaves us with a dilemma. If women remain hidden, or hide themselves, how are those who follow to find the stories in which they blaze a trail through oceans, or support themselves and their family with literary success? As Clode writes, ‘Stories construct the mythologies of our history, help us to understand our present circumstances and illuminate the possibilities of the future. If we cannot see ourselves in stories, how can we imagine ourselves creating new ones?’ This is not, I expect, a conundrum that can ever be resolved, and one of the great pleasures of these books is the ways in which their authors fill in the blanks. Clode’s detailed knowledge of history and sailing helps her reader to understand life on board an eighteenth-century vessel. On a visit to a replica sixth-rate frigate, the Étoile du Roy, she recreates the ‘fetid water in swollen casks’, the livestock ‘loaded in crates on the deck’ and the mooring lines that ‘coiled, in those days, like giant boat constrictors’. Meanwhile, Carey’s love of gardening leads her reader to sympathise when her carefully nurtured Western Australian seedlings are mistaken for weeds by the lawn mowing man, and are unceremoniously mown down. The authors’ familiarity with soil and seas adds a richness to their narratives, and insights into their biographical subjects that readers might otherwise not have accessed.

Works Cited

Dever, M., Vickery, A., Newman, S., & National Library of Australia. The intimate archive : journeys through private papers. National Library of Australia, 2009.

Gerson, Carole. ‘Locating Female Subjects in the Archives.’ Working in Women’s Archives. Researching Women’s Private Literature and Archival Documents. Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2001.

Published December 3, 2020
Part of Juncture: JUNCTURE is a fellowship program presenting a series of new essays on Australian and international literature by leading critics.  All Juncture essays →
Jessica White

Jessica White is an author and academic living on Kaurna country. She has published...

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