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. And indeed I was very pleased when someone gave it to me for a late Christmas present. But I didn't get around to reading it until a few days ago. I have been in hospital (having my hip replaced, if you're interested, and yes, I'm absolutely fine now, thanks for asking) so reading has been a real lifeline. And oh how pleased I was to have this one. In fact it's such a magnificent novel that I've been hesitating about reviewing in 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 fathers 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 totally 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 mothers 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 fulfill 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 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 lifetimes 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 Wolf Hall, and perhaps in its scope and range that is the novel to which this comes nearest. But it's not a copy, nor an homage, nor anything else but a fantastic and moving novel which deserves to win whatever prizes are going. Do read it!