Reviewed by Harriet Devine
She was her father’s daughter. It was said of her from the beginning. For one thing, Alma Whittaker looked precisely like Henry: ginger of hair, florid of skin, small of mouth, wide of brow, abundant of nose. This was rather an unfortunate circumstance for Alma, although it would take her some years to realize it. Henry’s face was far better suited to a grown man than to a little girl….What’s more, Alma was clever like him. Sturdy, too. A right little dromedary she was, tireless and uncomplaining. Never took ill. Stubborn. From the moment the girl learned to speak, she could not put an argument to rest.
Sometimes it seems that for a writer to become famous for a particular book can be a mixed blessing. This is certainly what happened to Elizabeth Gilbert. A writer and journalist of some standing and experience, she published her autobiographical Eat, Pray, Love in 2007 to great acclaim, in some quarters anyway, and the book was followed by a less than wonderful film starring Julia Roberts. But the book quickly got viewed as just another self-help manual, and even I, who have a great interest in some of the things she talks about in it, didn’t feel any desire to read it. But I did, in the end, and I loved it, though even my own positive review gained a few dubious comments. So, when I read great things about her 2013 novel The Signature of All Things, I wasn’t sceptical. In fact it’s such a magnificent novel that I’ve been hesitating about reviewing it in case I couldn’t do it justice.
This is the story of Alma Whittaker. The daughter of an immensely wealthy, uneducated dealer in biological pharmaceuticals and his intellectual Dutch wife, Alma is born in Philadelphia in 1800. She is not a beauty, having inherited her father’s large frame and red hair, but she has also inherited her mother’s mind. So from a very early age, in addition to her intensive education, she is allowed to roam freely round the estate on her pony, collecting plant samples. By the time she is in her teens, she has become formidably knowledgeable, and her first scientific paper is published when she is just sixteen. But successful though her life of the mind may be, Alma is not happy. Awakened to her own passionate nature by the chance discovery of some erotic literature, and in love with a man who respects her mind but marries someone else, she feels increasingly doomed to a solitary life, and takes refuge in her research.
And then suddenly, when she reaches her forties, she meets Ambrose Pike. Some years younger, beautiful, an inordinately talented artist, Ambrose appears to her like an angel, which is indeed what he most aspires to be, in a literal sense. So when, in an amazingly bizarre manner, he asks her to marry him, she believes happiness has come at last. However…
Well, I could go on but then you might not think you need to read the book. Suffice it to say that the marriage does not go well and for a time Alma is very unhappy indeed. But out of that unhappiness comes eventually an incredible and life changing adventure involving a voyage to Tahiti and finally a voyage back to her mother’s birthplace, Amsterdam, where she will end her days a very distinguished woman indeed.
I suppose there have always been, and will always be, women with fine minds who for whatever reason are not able to fulfil the needs of the body. But though important, this is far from being all that this novel is about, though all its themes and issues resonate with each other. It is of course also about what it was like to be a female scientist in a century in which the very term ‘scientist’ was not coined until the 1830s. And, given the time when it is set, you won’t be surprised to hear that theories of evolution are beginning to emerge. Alma, in fact, who has built her later career on the study of mosses, has arrived at one of her own, and, being at the time on the way back from Tahiti, knows nothing of Darwin and the book he has just written. So her own work on the subject, which could have overturned history in the same way, is destined never to be published. But Alma is interested to find that Darwin has avoided the very problem which has given her so much trouble. If species progress through competition with each other – the survival of the fittest – how to account for human kindness and self-sacrifice with no ulterior motive? Alma needs to look no further than her own adopted sister for a lifetime’s example of that, discovered late in life but not too late to make some reparation.
Big, big questions here, then. But Gilbert deals with them all in a wonderfully graceful way. Her descriptive prose is breathtaking at times, whether it’s the lushness of Kew Gardens where Whittaker first learns his trade or the astonishing landscapes of Tahiti. The historical background seems impeccably researched and it was really hard to believe that this was not in fact the biography of a real woman. But no, it is indeed the imagined account of the life of a woman who certainly could and should have existed, one whose life moves with the inexorable slowness of her own beloved mosses, in the study of which, the world had scaled itself down into endless inches of possibility. Her life could be lived in generous miniature.
Gilbert is apparently a tremendous admirer of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and perhaps in its scope and range that is the novel to which this comes nearest. But this is not a copy, nor an homage, nor anything else but a fantastic and moving novel which deserves to win whatever prizes are going. It’s just out in paperback, so do read it!
Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and is now longing to visit Tahiti, though by a more comfortable means of transport than Alma’s.
Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things (Bloomsbury, London: 2014). 978-1408841921, 592 pp., paperback.