“The old cobbler (Jacob Boehme) had believed in something he called ‘the signature of all things‘ — namely that God had hidden clues for humanity’s betterment inside the design of every flower, leaf, fruit, and tree on earth. All the natural world was a divine code, Boehme had claimed, containing proof of our creator’s love.”
Elizabeth Gilbert has set her new novel The Signature of All Things, her first foray back into fiction since the “freakish success” (in her own words) of her memoir Eat, Pray, Love--in the 19th century. It is the story of naturalist Alma Whittaker whose life spans the century from her birth in 1800 in Philadelphia through her voyages in the Pacific in middle age, to her final years in Amsterdam in the 1880’s.
Actually it is a story that covers more than one lifetime, as it begins with Alma’s father, Henry Whittaker. Henry’s father works as a gardener in Kew Gardens during the reign of King George III, and Henry grows up with a knowledge of trees.
Determined to escape his family’s extreme poverty, Henry’s teenaged actions stemming from his intelligence, botanical skill, and larcenous spirit bring him to the attention of Kew’s supervisor, Joseph Banks, (one of the real historical figures who populate the book).
Instead of hanging Henry for his illegal deeds, Banks sends the boy sailing with Captain Cook on his ill-fated third voyage around the world to procure botanical specimens for Kew. After many years successfully working for Banks, the still young Henry strikes out on his own and parlays his botanical knowledge and acquisitions into wealth by partnering with a pharmacist to produce quinine and other herbal remedies which they sell at a great profit.
Henry marries an intelligent and practical Dutch wife, Beatrix, and they settle in Philadelphia where Henry builds a huge estate, White Acre, filled with botanical specimens from around the world. After several miscarriages, Beatrix gives birth to Alma.
Alma is a born naturalist, both by heredity (nature) and by where and how she is raised (nurture). An educated, curious human, Alma roams her parents’ large estate collecting and studying botanical specimens, intellectually unencumbered by gender, and unafraid to speak her opinion or question the many renowned and esteemed thinkers who come to visit from all over Europe and North America, and who engage in spirited debate at the White Acre dinner table.
The 1800’s are a time of changing, often uncomfortable ideas, when rational humanism began its rise. It is the century when the word “scientist” was first used and natural philosophers — who often earned their livings as ministers — first found themselves having to choose between the conclusions of the nature they observed, and the religion they embraced.
This conflict of opinion is central to Alma’s life, never more so then when she falls in love with a man who embraces the 16th century Boehme’s belief in “The Signature of All Things” which Alma knows to be nothing more than a medieval superstition. It may be a beautiful, romantic — even metaphorical — idea, but scientifically it is nonsense.
There are no clichés here. Alma grows up resembling her father —six feet tall, big boned, with unruly red hair — a clear contrast to her beautiful adopted sister, Prudence, who comes to live with them after a tragedy.
Yes, the plain Alma and beautiful Prudence fall in love with the same man, publisher George Hawkes, but there is no romantic rivalry and it is only much later — long after both Prudence and Hawkes have each married others — that Alma finds out the truth that while George and Prudence loved each other, Prudence refused to marry him, knowing that Alma loved George as well and refused to do anything to cause her adopted sister pain.
It is not that the two girls lack passion or desire for romantic love, but intellectually and morally they are products of their times and their upbringing, and they make decisions accordingly. This may be a novel set in the 19th century, but it is not Jane Austen territory, there is no Edward Farris or Colonel Brandon to rescue them from spinsterhood (these two sisters are Sense and Sense).
But then money is not a problem for which marriage is a solution; Henry is generous and when Prudence marries a man she does not love, he gives her a huge dowry, which she uses to fund abolitionist causes, and insists on living in austerity with her husband and six children.
Alma remains unmarried, studying botany, and after her mother’s death, becomes her father’s secretary, helping run the business and the estate. She becomes a well-regarded and published botanist. Being a woman confined by the era to remain at home rather than voyaging, she decides to specialize in mosses. Twenty years of study leads her to the hypothesis that there is a mechanism by which species evolve over time, an idea being discussed all over the European scientific world.
Romantic love does come to Alma when she is in her 40’s in the person of Ambrose Pike, an amazingly talented botanical illustrator returned from South America. She offers him a room and studio at White Acre and becomes infatuated. They marry and it is a disaster; their communication fails on all levels, not in the least because Pike is a man who wishes to live only on a spiritual plain. Alma insists that Pike leave, and Henry sends him to run his plantation in Tahiti, where Pike dies, leaving behind drawings which are sent to her. Drawn in the same exquisite detail Pike had used in his drawings of orchids and other fauna, Alma is shocked to find that these are drawings of a beautiful man in the nude.
The death of her father liberates Alma from family obligations. Leaving White Acre to Prudence to run as a school, Alma sets sail for Tahiti to try and solve the mystery of her husband’s life on the island and his relationship with the beautiful man. The truth of Ambrose’s life in Tahiti is a revelation on many levels. But there is an even more spectacular revelation in store for Alma. The knowledge gleaned from 26 years of studying mosses melds with the experience of nearly dying during a physically brutal Tahitian game she is drawn into one day with the native women and, in a flash of insight, Alma comes up with a spectacular theory: species survive and evolve by competition.
Alma works on her theory in a series of voyages that take her from Tahiti to Amsterdam where she looks up her mother’s family who embrace her and insist she live with them. Her Uncle Dees, who runs the botanicum in the city, urges her to publish her theory, but Alma refuses. There is something missing, something that should explain the altruism of human beings. Although the competition of species explains almost everything, it does not explain altruism; it does not explain actions like those of her sister Prudence who sacrificed marrying the love of her life to protect her sister’s feelings.
Alma declares that until she comes up with “a convincing evolutionary explanation for human altruism and self-sacrifice” she cannot present her ideas. She is thrilled when Darwin publishes The Origin of the Species, but realizes he has not touched on her conundrum; indeed he has cleverly not mentioned humans at all.
Gilbert has created in Alma a character that no one can compare to the Elizabeth Gilbert we think we know from Eat, Pray, Love, except, perhaps, in her intelligence and curiosity. I am a fan of Gilbert’s, she is a good writer and I enjoy her following her adventures — whether fictional or memoir — as well as the insights and research that enrich her work; whether it be the origins of modern Italian (Dante) or a new word for an intimate part of the female anatomy (quim).
The Signature of All Things is a good, expansive read, rich in historical detail with a depth of complex ideas, with an original heroine who feels authentic to her era and still pushes the boundaries of her time. And yet I finished the book feeling unsatisfied. One of Gilbert’s strengths as a writer is her emotional accessibility and that is something that is lacking in The Signature of all Things. Alma is sympathetic, but her thoughts, actions and emotions always seem to feel slightly remote. She is observed, but for this reader at least, not experienced. This weakness mimics Alma’s lack of emotional insight. She is surprised to find that Prudence cared so much about her that she was willing to sacrifice her own happiness; surprised at the realization that her father not only loved her but that she was his favorite; surprised at the true nature of her husband although everyone around her seems to have recognized it.
Despite these reservations, I enjoyed The Signature of All Things. The time period, the subject matter, the various debates on the nature of things, all are fascinating and, indeed, the philosophy and science discussed in the novel are still a matter of deep and emotional debate. Alma Whittaker is a complex character who despite hardship and heartbreak, survives into a happy old age, having lived a life of intellectual fulfillment. The final chapter ends with her having a debate with Alfred Russell Wallace, the Australian botanist whose independently discovered theory of evolution spurred Darwin to finally publish Origin of the Species. Wallace espouses his theory that “humans have extraordinary minds and souls because there is a supreme intelligence in the universe, which wishes for communion with us.”
Alma gently counters “...you are answering a mystery with another mystery, and I cannot say if I would call that science — though I might call it poetry.”
This is a novel of about an independent, intelligent woman who thrives on the passion of ideas. I wish though I had been able to experience it through her, rather than looking at it through a lens.