Listen to this article
The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert, Bloomsbury, RRP£18.99/Viking, RRP$28.95, 512 pages
Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things is a wildly ambitious novel with a huge historical sweep that criss-crosses continents and covers most of the 19th century and a good part of the one before. It sets out to map the motivations and boundaries of the natural world and the human heart with great verve and brio.
There are rip-roaring adventures on the high seas with Captain Cook; there are long and intricate (and fascinating) passages about botany and plant development. There is an acute portrait of a strained sibling relationship; there are passages about the abolitionist movement. There is taxonism, there is onanism, there is a thrilling psychic betrothal in a cupboard.
Parts of the novel are written in the charming, fluent prose of a well-loved fireside storyteller. Other passages make you think of the most outlandish holiday postcards you could possibly receive: “went turtling and ate dolphins”. There are moments that seem inspired by Charles Dickens and others where the self-reflective spirit of a Charlotte Brontë heroine guides the author’s pen. In the main, the writing is deft, assured and unpretentious. Gilbert, already famous for her bestselling 2006 memoir Eat, Pray, Love, is that rare writer who can successfully render 20 years in a short paragraph.
Alma Whittaker, the novel’s supremely intelligent heroine, is born in 1800, with a face “like a bowl of porridge”. Her father is Henry Whittaker, botanical explorer and self-made man whose fortune (from plant-derived pills and potions) has made him the richest person in Philadelphia. His staunch and austere Dutch wife Beatrix is scholarly and driven, but lacking in the maternal arts, to put it mildly.
Alma knows her numbers in four languages by her fourth birthday, with Greek introduced at the age of five. There is no play or playmate for Alma but she roams her father’s enormous estate, where there are rare birds, exotic plants, dazzling gardens, peaches for the picking and many other treasures such as coral, Egyptian jewellery and stuffed snakes.
Dignity and hard work are the twin gods of Alma’s girlhood. At her parents’ dinners, she converses with experts in the decomposition of human remains or the pulmonary function of aquatic birds. To be grown-up is to be an expert, she learns. When her parents adopt a sister for her, it ought to make for friendship, but the lack of affection shown to both children has a devastating life-long effect.
After a colossal romantic disappointment, Alma does something highly original among the broken-hearted: she dedicates her life to the study of moss. She pores over the characteristics of this common yet complex plant, attempting to understand it completely. Alma admires moss for the elegant way it holds its beauty in reserve. She even loves the way the timeframe of its incredibly slow growth patterns render its study largely unsuited to the human lifespan. I had no prior interest in moss, yet I am very interested in it now.
After a spell in Tahiti, where Alma tries to discover why her shortlived marriage failed, she applies her scholarship to more fruitful endeavours. When she produces “The Theory of Competitive Alteration”, her life’s work, it is clear to the reader that her study approaches the calibre of Darwin’s theory of natural selection.
It was only the impossibility of reconciling the fact of altruistic human behaviour with developments in the natural world that prevented Alma from publishing. She is slightly rueful when Darwin sidesteps this issue in On the Origin of Species, although she concedes that his writing style is better, and he did finish his findings a little before she finished her own . . .
The Signature of All Things is the kind of book I usually avoid, a huge novel filled with dazzling storytelling, designed, I think, to take the reader out of herself – for I prefer concentrated works that take you further and further inside. And yet I greatly admired Gilbert’s book for its rich texture, its extremely odd heroine and its wry and subtle heart.
Susie Boyt is an FT columnist and author of ‘The Small Hours’ (Virago)