The Signature of All Things

Alma Whittaker is a pioneer of her time: smart, argumentative, sexual, educated.  She is also at times stubborn, unthinking, irritatingly precocious.  In short, she is a woman I believe in, and a main character I cheer for.  The Signature of All Things is a book I loved because of its complex, thorny, intelligent female lead, drawn in a fascinating time of learning.

I was a doubter, before I started this book.  Elizabeth Gilbert, famous for Eat, Pray, Love, and then Committed, is not an authorial name to which I relate: the Oprah-self-help-poor-rich-white-woman thing did not really appeal. But The Signature of All Things was so insistently, vigorously recommended to me, and on investigation I found that Gilbert was an established writer well before her self-discovery story notoriety, and one of prodigious imagination and scope.

This book feels illuminated, bejewlled, managing to tell the story of a Century through its one main character, Alma Whittaker.  She, like the book, is ambitious, curious and strong.  Alma is “born with the Century” in 1800 in the middle of the Philadelphian winter to one of the biggest international self-made men of trade.  Almost literally a giant of his time, Henry’s wield over his family with his pragmatic, educated Dutch wife, creates Alma in a form of his image, for better or worse.  Surrounded by their sprawling estate and access to almost all the knowledge that can be contained in books, Alma is intellectual, shrewd, and a fierce debater, sucking up everything she can learn.  She is a woman of the enlightenment.

Alma is rendered with an exquisite, sensitive balance: as well as beingfiercely intelligent, a person wrought with learning and desire for knowledge, an independent, business-like woman, she also has a longing for friendship, companionship, and a strong erotic imagination.  And between all this she is naive and frustrated, her idyllic childhood of seemingly endless knowledge has rendered itself down into a closed world, not allowing her anywhere further.

Alma’s childhood affinity for botany develops into an internationally recognised expertise in mosses, “The world had scaled itself down into endless inches of possibility… Her life could be lived in generous miniature”.  Intellectually fulfilled but emotionally alone, Alma resigns her life to this smaller but important life.  This world is shattered forever, however, when she meets Ambrose Pike, a beautiful, talented lithographer, who seems to capture the beauty, and not just the science, in his drawings of plants.

In this way, Gilbert tells the story of learning and science of the 19th Century, with Alma almost as a proxy for challenging new modes of thinking and discoveries.  The world opens up to her, and this huge book goes from Kew Gardens to Tahiti, to Philadelphia, to Holland.  Alma’s life, so small until this point, is suddenly opened up; and the narrative, which had pace and intelligence but was starting to get claustrophobic, gains a grand, sweeping feeling.

For example, when watching a whale from the ship taking her to Tahiti:

It was the most majestic thing she had seen, and the most holy, and the most awesome.  The pressure in the air was so thick, Alma’s eardrums seemed in danger of bursting, and it was a struggle to pull breath into her lungs.  For the next five minutes, she was so overcome that she did not know if she was alive or dead.  She did not know what world this was.

There is a sensuous quality pervading Gilbert’s writing, affecting the smallest, intimate details – such as the tactile quality of Alma’s slowly advancing moss colonies – to these grand, almost debilitating moments of sheer beauty and wonder.

Travelling to Tahiti has changed Alma’s world, away from her cosseted life behind the walls of Philadelphia’s largest home, to a hut on the beach in a small missionary community.  It’s not all serious learning and yearning; Gilbert is a good observer of detail and feeling, often applying a softly humourous and sharp eye to moments.

One morning she discovered that a shoe – just one shoe! – had been taken…while, at the same time, a quite useful set of watercolours had been returned.   Another day, she recovered the base of her prized microscope, only to see that somebody had now taken back the eyepiece in exchange.  It was as if there were a tide ebbing and flowing in and out of her house, depositing and withdrawing the flotsam of her old life.

Alma is a woman so definitely of her place and time, but Gilbert has also made her relatable, flawed, an open sprit.

There is a feeling of luminosity about this book, made up of thousands of small, detailed, beautifully rendered moments: capturing of science, feeling, learning, travel.  There is a vitality to this novel, a buoying feeling that pulls the reader through a Century of learning and science, all within the prism of one enlightenment-era woman: this patterning of detail to make up the whole, wondrous picture.

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