A review of The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

The Signature of All Things
by Elizabeth Gilbert
2014, ISBN 978-0-14-312584-6, softcover, $17 US

In recent years several excellent novels on women in science have appeared. Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures focused on two real-life women fossil hunters in the early 19th century. Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder concerned a female mad-scientist in the Amazon. In Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver presents a working class woman whose observation of an environmental phenomenon ultimately leads her to complete her education.

In The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert, famous for her memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, presents a fictional early 19th century woman botanist. Alma Whittaker arrives at a theory of natural selection and survival of the fittest almost simultaneously with Charles Darwin, whose seminal work, On the Origin of Species, was published in 1859.

Survival and power are important in the novel. The birth of strapping, vigorous baby Alma in 1800 is much desired, after a series of still births and miscarriages. Alma’s father, Henry Whittaker, is a brash, self-made man, who fought himself up from poverty in 18th century England. Father and daughter are co-protagonists; he is ruthless in pursuit of wealth, while she is absorbed in botany at the expense of other aspects of living.

Assisting his father, a gardener in London’s Kew Gardens, teenaged Henry begins stealing and selling exotic plants to rich collectors. When caught, his bold, unrepentant attitude and proven botanical knowledge leads the Kew superintendent to send him, not to the gallows, but to sea with Captain Cook. On this and subsequent voyages, Henry sees the world, learns much at the school of hard knocks, and decides to start a business in medicinal plants. Impressed by the Dutch, who learned the use of quinine against malaria, he seeks and wins as a bride the well-educated daughter of a botanical family in Amsterdam.

Henry and Beatrix settle in Philadelphia, PA, in 1793, where Henry becomes a multi-millionaire. Beatrix, who is advanced for her era in believing that “a girl has never perished from too much learning”, starts Alma in Latin and other subjects at an early age. Alma’s childhood is spent on formal education, reading, exploring the thousand acre family estate, and collecting plant species. At nine she is included in dinner parties which Henry’s business and scientist friends, where she converses with leaders in their fields and learns from them. But although she grows up with a highly developed intellect, good manners, and a friendly disposition, she does not mingle with other children and attains little insight into human nature.

Her life changes when her mother rescues and adopts a girl her age who is orphaned in a murder/suicide. Prudence’s beauty forces Alma to realize that she is strapping and homely. Although Beatrix insists that Alma treat Prudence civilly, the girls never become close. Alma remains her father’s favourite. Academically, Alma bests Prudence, but where empathy, gratitude and cooperation are concerned, Prudence surpasses Alma.

To an extent, Gilbert shows, in Alma, the plight of an intellectual woman in early 19th century America. When the embryonic women’s movement first held a convention, in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, the opening up of institutions of higher learning to women was a major issue. Though Alma has the leisure to develop her knowledge of botany, and a friend who publishes her scholarly papers in his scientific journal, she has no chance of an academic career. Yet, although she is in a financial position to do so, Alma does not pioneer in women’s rights, the anti-slavery movement, or any other field. When she realizes a man she loves regards her only as a colleague, she stays at home, assists her father with his work, and throws herself into her study of mosses.

Mosses, like Alma, are plain, not exotic. Durable, powerful (able to destroy rock) and often velvety to touch, they are also symbolic of inactivity and stagnation. One thinks of the term “moss back” for ultraconservatives, and the saying, “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” Alma finally becomes a rolling stone in her late forties, only after the shock of a great disappointment, and two significant deaths of people close to her. Distraught, she seeks sympathy from the wise housekeeper, Hanneke, who, instead, scolds her for her failure to appreciate her sister. Earlier, says Hanneke, Prudence gave up something she wanted in the hope of furthering Alma’s happiness. After some soul-searching, Alma realizes that she is not “a woman of dignity and worldly knowledge..[but] a “petulant and aging princess… who had never risked anything of worth.”

Alma’s great disappointment is her brief marriage. (Warning: The next paragraphs contain spoilers.) Through her publisher, she meets a talented botanical illustrator, ten years her junior. Ambrose Pike is newly back to the United States after eighteen years drawing plants in Mexico and Guatemala. He hopes to publish a book of flower illustrations but has no home nor money. Alma likes him and persuades her father to give him a place to live and work. As they get to know each other better, she realizes that they see nature differently. She sees it in rational, material terms; he sees it in spiritual ones, believing that all natural objects are imprinted with messages from God. He tells her that he longs most for “purity and communion”, which could certainly be found in friendship.

After an attempt at telepathic conversation, which turns out to be a dreadful misunderstanding, Ambrose proposes, Alma accepts, then discovers that he wants a sexless marriage. While admitting that his friendship would have sufficed, she is so frustrated and humiliated that she arranges with her father to ship Ambrose to Tahiti to supervise the cultivation of vanilla. In 1851, when news arrives of his death, it occurs to her that his banishment may have contributed to his demise. Suspecting that he preferred men to women, she travels to Tahiti to find the truth. At age 51, it is the first time she has travelled anywhere.

In Tahiti she meets an elderly missionary who is liberal and inclusive enough to welcome to his fold Tahitians who still adhere to some of their traditional beliefs. The Reverend Welles tells Alma that Tahitians believed that the gods made all the useful plants on their island to resemble parts of the human body; for instance, breadfruit leaves resemble hands to show humans that they should reach toward this tree for food. Like Ambrose, they believe in God’s signature in all things. Later, in writing her “theory of competitive alteration”, Alma takes the position that the signature in nature is the fact that all species change.

Eventually Alma meets the missionary’s adopted son, a handsome charismatic Tahitian preacher who believes, in contrast to his mentor, that “the news of the Creator and Jesus Christ must be communicated not through gentleness or persuasion, but through power. When Alma learns that this man’s involvement with Ambrose almost certainly contributed to his death, she reacts in a way that will shock many readers. In effect she sides with this powerful man, dismissing Ambrose as one of the weak. Shortly after that, in a dangerous game gone wrong, she has to fight to survive, and becomes convinced that life is a struggle for survival.

On completing the treatise explaining her “theory of competitive selection”, based on mosses, she hesitates to publish it, because she has failed to grapple with the question of altruism:

Why did anyone ever act beyond the scope of base self interest?” she muses. “Why would a soldier run straight into a line of bayonets to protect an injured comrade… Through self-sacrifice, the now-dead soldier had negated not only his own future but the continuation of his bloodline as well.

If the fictional Alma were alive in the 21st century, she would be aware that scientists in a variety of disciplines see altruism as key to the survival of species. Such works as The Origins and Nature of Sociology, by Robert W. Sussmann and Audrey R. Chapman (2004), Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life by Dacher Keltner, 2009, and The Survival of the Nicest, by Stefan Klein and David Dollmayer (2014) assert that natural selection favoured those early human beings who cooperated in groups. Cooperation helped to assure survival of the group, allowing early human beings the leisure to use their intellects to develop language, culture and, eventually, civilization.

In a biological sense, it is Prudence, who behaves selflessly toward Alma and others, who survives. Her bloodline continues; she bears six children and has grandchildren. The cause she has fought for, the abolition of slavery, succeeds after the Civil War. If Gilbert had presented Prudence’s point of view, The Signature of All Things would be better balanced. Though Alma eventually earns a living in her field and finds friends for her old age, the inner struggles of a poor little rich girl are not compelling enough for the space she takes up in the novel.

At one point, the compassionate missionary, Welles, says that he has quit mentioning Satan to his congregation because some of his converts started praying to him. They thought that, since Christians spoke so much against Satan, he must be more powerful than their god, hence the one to pray to. One is reminded of Paradise Lost, in which John Milton’s Satan, supposedly the villain of the epic, is so well-drawn that he becomes the hero. The same sort of thing happens in The Signature of All Things. Although Henry and Alma are not demons, they are not necessarily more interesting or worthy than Hanneke, Prudence, Ambrose or the Reverend Welles, the nicer characters who are relegated to supporting roles.

In The Signature of All Things, Gilbert dazzles us with foreign locales, 19th century intellectual debates and period details, but the “woman scientist” novels mentioned earlier are more satisfactory because they are clearer in theme.

For more information about Ruth Latta’s novels, search under her name or visit her blog at http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com