The Reformation mystic Jacob Boehme believed in what he called “the signature of all things”—clues left by God in “the design of every flower, leaf, fruit and tree.” Those clues were there to aid humanity.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things is a beautifully written and weighty (in both senses) historical novel about Alma Whittaker, a 19th-century botanist who took great joy and scientific pleasure in following the clues nature offers. The novel’s salting-in of historical people and places, as well as details galore about Alma’s chosen field, bryology (see below), add to its feeling of authenticity.
Alma herself is an early feminist whom Gilbert draws as living fully in the 19th century, not as a “plant” by an author with 21st-century sensibilities. Alma’s vibrating energy keeps the reader turning the pages in expectation of continuing adventures—for Alma’s life is fascinating whether she is looking through a microscope or traveling to Tahiti in search of answers about her dead husband.
Alma’s father, Henry, grew up poor and rascally in England, using his smarts to better his lot by almost any means necessary. Son of an orchardman at the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, he was caught stealing. Defending himself against the threat of the gallows, Henry declared, “I’m a useful little fingerstink.” And indeed he was. Exiled to the sea, he swashbuckled around the world with Captain Cook and others, filching valuable plants as he went. He returned a rich man and searched for a worthy wife, preferably Dutch. He married Beatrix, an expert botanist from a family in charge of the famous Hortus Botanical Gardens in Amsterdam.
Henry viewed Beatrix as “ballast”—exactly what he wanted in a wife. They created White Acre, the most beautiful estate in Philadelphia. Beatrix produced a daughter and taught her Latin and other suitable subjects when Alma was 4. The girl was brought up with phrases like “Stop your weeping and carry on.” Beatrix scolded Hanneke, the housekeeper, who thought so much study was a bit over the top for such a young girl: “At no moment in history has a bright young girl with a . . . good constitution perished from too much learning.” Alma thrived. Besides scholarly lessons, she spent her youth wandering and inspecting the woodland and gardens of her father’s vast estate as well as learning to ask intelligent questions at the dinner table. Henry hated boredom; he invited people to come and stay at White Acre if he thought them worthy. Dinner was the place for intellectual conversation, never for foolish chatter. Alma was enchanted when a visiting chemical expert declared she was “as clever as a little book to talk to.”
Alma’s life became less idyllic at age 9, when Prudence, daughter of one of the gardeners, came to be part of the family as a result of misfortune. Alma was not a “pretty thing,” but Prudence was. She was beautiful, invariably sweet, and in awe of Alma’s intellect. When a visitor demanded to see the pretty daughter, Henry defended Alma: “To my mind, the homely one is worth ten of the pretty one.”
Mother Beatrix put Alma in charge of the estate’s library when she was 16, a job she adored, given her love for classifying things. She found a new passion when her library explorations led her to a robust collection of erotica. What went on in the binding closet I will not spoil for you, dear reader.
Alma was soon publishing papers and books on a sadly overlooked botanical subject: mosses. Through her magnifying lens, she had discovered a “stupefying kingdom” of valleys and tributaries through jungles complete with miniature oceans.
Mosses led her to a unique theory she called “competitive alteration.” Her late-in-life benefactor, Dees van Devender, her mother’s younger brother in Holland, who ran Hortus, insisted that she publish. But because Alma did not understand the evolutionary advantages of altruism and self-sacrifice to humans, she refused to publish until her theory was perfect. Charles Darwin did publish: On the Origin of the Species. He had his finches, she had her mosses. She was thrilled to have her work vindicated by someone who avoided the “problem” of human beings. This reader would have been grinding her teeth.
Alma knew love and desire; she discovered them in books and in her brief marriage to an unworldly sprite of a man. Her sister Prudence, married to the wrong man, discovered her calling in self-sacrifice and in the Abolitionist movement. Prudence’s extreme devotion to the cause made her insufferable at times, and thus she comes across as much a flesh and blood person as does Alma.
Alma was a full-steam-ahead woman in a century not known for its support of women scientists. One of Henry Whittaker’s dinner guests describes Henry and Alma’s love of botany as “the only scientific work that is suited to the female sex.” In Alma’s time, says Gilbert, women could be “polite botanists,” not “botanists,” like men, though the only difference in the terms was that men got respect.
At age 82, Alma arranged a meeting with Alfred Russel Wallace, who is noted for his own work on natural selection. A kindred spirit, he admired Alma’s Cave of Mosses at the Hortus, and gave his own perspective on the solution to Alma’s problem: Why would the fact that humans are altruistic pose a problem for Alma’s theory of “competitive alteration”? Alfred believed that a supreme intelligence in the universe created our fine minds. But Alma, ever the scientist, responded that he was answering a mystery with another mystery.
I loved Gilbert’s blockbuster Eat, Pray, Love, a beautiful fantasy, in contrast to The Signature, a realistic novel full of believable detail. It matters not if you hated Eat, Pray, Love; you will be in awe of Gilbert’s new novel. She writes convincingly and elegantly in a 19th-century style, with intelligent prose and characters you won’t soon forget. Here are some of them:
• Ambrose Pike, the orchid-photographer, Alma’s husband-to-be, viewing Alma’s garden for the first time: “My eyes cannot believe what I am seeing here! You must tell me, Miss Whittaker—what mad genius took such pains to fabricate this garden according to strict Euclidian geometric ideals?” I laughed at it and loved it simultaneously.
• And here are her compelling father, Henry, who outwitted those who thought him inferior; Reverend Welles, who allowed Tahitian villagers to run his unusual and brief religious services; and so many more characters I plan to revisit when I recommend this for my book club (we never did Eat Pray Love).
Alma is eloquent. Ambrose Pikr asks what it was that she admired in mosses, she declares, “Their dignity . . . Also, their silence and intelligence. I like that—as a point of study, they are fresh. They are not like other bigger or more important plants, which have all been pondered and poked at by hordes of botanists. I suppose I admire their modesty, as well. Mosses hold their beauty in elegant reserve. By comparison to mosses, everything else in the botanical world can seem so blunt and obvious.”