Certain novels encompass not just brief periods, but entire eras, as War and Peace does for Napoleonic Europe, or James Michener’s Centennial does for the opening of the American West. Both of those novels, although excellent, deal mostly with political and social events. More rarely, the historical novel will attempt to illuminate the ideas that shape an era, as the Nobel Prize winner Sigrid Undset’s emphasis on medieval Catholicism gives Kristen Lavransdatter (1920) much of its extraordinary power. Such a book is Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things (2013), the story of the Whittaker family in 19th century Philadelphia, and the remarkable Alma Whittaker, scientist and traveler, daughter of Henry Whittaker, the man whose tireless drive to amass a fortune shapes nearly every event in the book.
So deft is Gilbert at drawing a portrait of the relentless Henry Whittaker, raging like John Adams in his efforts to escape the domination of his English betters and determined to become the richest man in Philadelphia, that we think for the first third of the book that the story is about him. We see Henry’s participation as a botanist in James Cook’s third voyage to the Pacific. We see Henry insulted by his patron upon his return to England to such an extent that he sails to America in order to deprive Britain of the pharmacological fortune he will now make for himself; we see his marriage to the very practical Beatrix van Devender who, we are led to believe, is not Abigail Adams; but no, the story is about Alma, his ungainly, tall, and very bright daughter, who has nothing but her insatiable curiosity and wide-ranging intellect to recommend her. Born in 1800, she is, in her capacity of mind, an American Jane Eyre, quiet yet spirited, but utterly unable to find amongst the hundreds of visitors to the Whittaker estate each year a Rochester who can match her intelligence or unleash her thwarted sexuality.
In subtly blending the narrative of Henry’s life and Alma’s, Gilbert’s novel achieves a tonal poise like that of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: the astonishing power of the symphony’s first movement is there, anticipating the revolutions of the early 19th century; but so is the delicacy of the wonderful second movement and the musical debt it owes to the eighteenth century. You will feel that music as you read, and it will either enchant you or it will irritate you. The bookish analogue for Gilbert’s work is a milieu situated between the worlds of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte. In Austen’s novels, it appears that absolutely nothing happens; but, of course, everything does: it’s all just below the surface in someone’s phrase, or her gesture, or his inflection. Nothing happens in The Signature of All Things, either: Alma reaches her twenties; she acquires a sister by adoption, Prudence; and an eccentric neighbor and companion in a girl named Retta. Alma, like her father, grows up to be a botanist. Her great field of study is mosses, the slow-growing vegetation surrounding the trees on her family’s estate. She builds a herbarium to study and draw them closely. Some readers may wish that Gilbert had revealed more of the technical details of what Alma found in her studies, but it is probably wiser that she did not. A lay person is not always interested in what something is, but rather what something means. From mosses, Alma learns to distinguish between human time, divine time, and geological time, and she begins to understand through them what the seventeenth-century writer Jacob Boehme was driving at when he claimed that the impress of the Divine is upon every living thing in the natural world. Someone whose mind was open enough could “see God’s signature in all things.”
But the passions that rule Jane Eyre also rule here, and Alma is subject to them. You’ll recall from Bronte’s book that Rochester harbors a secret: he has hidden away an uncontrollable wife from the world, and buried his own desires with that act. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar see Rochester’s choice as symbolic of patriarchy’s attempt to suppress women in their famous study The Madwoman in the Attic. Alma’s “attic” is a small, private bookbinding room wherein, under the stimulation of pornography, she discovers the joy of masturbation. Gilbert depicts the balance of Alma’s intellectual and sexual awakening with fine tact. Her heroine has both the herbarium and the binding closet “and in both rooms,” Gilbert writes, “she came into being.”
Awakening does not mean fulfillment, however. Alma suffers from deep, unrequited love twice in the book, first from George Hawkes, the publisher of her botanical papers, and later from Ambrose Pike, a superb artist and mystic who, as St. John Rivers does for Jane Eyre, offers Alma companionship but not the passionate sexual union she desperately longs for, even in their brief, unhappy marriage. The difference between the two relationships, though, is striking. So profound is Alma’s love for Ambrose that, even after she banishes him from their bedroom and exiles him to Tahiti, she follows him there years later, in an effort to understand him and to understand why he has made drawings of a beautiful man, drawings given to Alma by Henry Whittaker’s agent, Dick Yancey, with advice that they be destroyed.
There’s a good deal of selfishness and lack of awareness of others in what Alma does as an adult, traits she shares with several of Jane Austen’s women. But she is also very brave and resourceful, and her latent compassion needs only the spur of her housekeeper, Hanneke De Groot, to rise to the surface:
“Do you think you are the only one to suffer? Read your Bible, child; this world is not a paradise but a vale of tears. Do you think God made an exception for you? Look around you. What do you see? All is anguish. Everywhere you turn there is sorrow.” When the grieving Alma inherits her father’s fortune and tells Hanneke that she owes no debts to her sister Prudence, the aged Dutchwoman–quite the best of many sharply-drawn supporting characters in the book–pulls her up short yet again:
“Do you see nothing, Alma?”. . . . Do you not witness how commendable she is to this very day–how sincere in her good works? What more must she do, Alma, to earn your regard?”
The sacrifice of Prudence, once Alma learns the depth of it, leads to a sacrifice by Alma herself, and a stirring voyage to Tahiti, which is perhaps the finest chapter in the book. The narrative voice, which often deprives us of some wished-for dialogue between the characters earlier in the story, is perfect here. We see just how harrowing those voyages of exploration were, and what courage it took to survive them.
Through all of her sojourn in the South Pacific, however, Alma keeps her intellect alive. She continues to reflect upon her study of mosses, and develops a theory of the origins of life on Earth, a theory that puts her in the same class as Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin. At first blush, Alma’s finest achievement may appear implausible, but Gilbert prepares us for it by creating in Alma a lifelong sense of reserve and intellectual pride that would not allow Alma to publish such a theory unless she knew it to be both right and perfect. It makes sense that she would hold back even from so important a discovery.
Secondarily, however, Gilbert reveals two broader truths to us: the seeds of the greatest advancements in human culture are knowingly planted by all of us long before they flower. Ideas go airborne upon the wind, to be picked up by whoever is willing to work with them. This was true of Darwinism, and it was also true of the development of the atomic bomb. Gilbert links the responsibility for Darwinism to a woman, and it was Niels Bohr’s secretary who first realized the awesome potential of nuclear fission. Such discoveries are available to anyone; they have consequences, and we are, all of us, men and women alike, responsible for those consequences.
The other truth Gilbert shows us, however, is sweeter and more comforting. The life of the mind, even with all of its limitations, can be a wonderful thing to experience. Alma tells Wallace when he comes to visit her, “I have never felt the need to invent a world beyond this world, for this world has always seemed large and beautiful enough for me. . . . Moreover, my little bit of knowledge has been added to all the other accumulated knowledge of history–added to the great library, as it were. That is no small feat, sir. Anyone who can say such a thing has lived a fortunate life.”