- - Friday, March 14, 2014


By Elizabeth Gilbert
Viking, $28.95, 499 pages

Alma Whittaker was “tall and mannish, flinty and freckled, large of bone, thick of knuckle, square of hip, and hard of chest.” This awkward woman with her thatch of unruly red hair is the heroine of Elizabeth Gilbert’s engrossing novel “The Signature of All Things.”

Alma was a dedicated botanist, a taxonomist “possessed by a soaring enthusiasm for systems, sequence, pigeonholing and indexes,” which led her to discover mosses as a source of study. Under her microscope, she found “rich, abundant valleys filled with tiny trees of braided mermaid hair and minuscule, tangled vines … a miniature ocean … patches of infinitesimally small deserts … deep, diminutive fjords … warm estuaries, miniature cathedrals and limestone caves the size of her thumb.”

“The Signature of All Things” is a family saga, a tale spanning from the Enlightenment to the Industrial Revolution, a time when science (a term not invented until the 1830s) was coming into its own.

The title of the novel comes from a 16th-century German mystic and theologian, Jacob Boehme, who believed in the signature of all things, “namely, that God had hidden clues for humanity’s betterment inside the design of every flower, leaf, fruit and tree on earth. All the natural world was a divine code. … This is why so many medicinal plants resembled the diseases they were meant to cure, or the organs they were able to treat.”

The story begins in the 1770s, when Henry Whittaker, a teenaged, impoverished, uneducated, gangly lad began working for (and stealing from) Sir Joseph Banks, the superintendent of Kew Gardens in London. Henry learned all about grafting and “the tricks of budding, booting, clefting planting, and pruning with a judicious hand.”

He secretly sold cuttings to Sir Joseph’s clients. When caught, Sir Joseph did not have him hanged for thievery, but sent him across the seas with Capt. Cook to discover new plant life and report on everything he saw. Henry was determined to become a gentleman; if not that, then a rich man.

Henry become very rich, emigrating to Philadelphia, where his fortunes rose with the sale of exotic plants and medicinal plants. His greenhouses were the best in America, and at one point he possessed more than 6,000 different varieties of plants on his huge estate, White Acre. He collected a large, valuable library.

Henry married a Dutch woman, Beatrix Van Devender, who “believed in respectability and morality … [and] that indifference to sensation was the very definition of dignity.” They had one child, Alma, born in 1800, who inherited her fierce father’s ungainly looks and his love of botany.

Alma and her adopted sister, Prudence, a dainty and beautiful orphaned child who “looked like a perfect figurine carved out of French soap, into which someone had inlaid a pair of glittering peacock-blue eyes” were given free rein of the estate. They attended the many dinners their father gave, at which Henry encouraged his daughters to participate in the conversations with learned and famous guests.

The years passed, and Alma became ever more involved in her botanical research. She published articles and books. She was a passionate woman, but was resigned to spinsterhood.

Alma was 50 years old when 35-year-old Ambrose Pike appeared in her life. She was smitten as much by his gorgeous paintings of orchids as by his own beauty. They spent all their time together, kindred spirits, in a blissful union of minds. She was in love.

They married despite the age difference, but the marriage was not consummated. Alma yearned for a physical union; Ambrose sought spiritual communion.

Frustrated, angry and disappointed, Alma exiled Ambrose to Tahiti to tend to the Whittaker vanilla plants, where he died a few years later. Included in the portfolio sent to Alma were drawings of a naked Tahitian youth that shocked her profoundly.

After her father’s death, Alma sailed to Tahiti to find out what had happened to Ambrose. All her possessions were stolen, and she lived for several years without comfort, making friends with the native population.

While in Tahiti, she formulated the theory “that the world was plainly divided into those who fought an unrelenting battle to live, and those who surrendered and died … . This fact was the very mechanism of nature — the driving force behind all existence, behind all transmutation, behind all variation — and it was the explanation for the entire world.”

Alma called her idea “A Theory of Competitive Alteration,” and thought she could prove it with mosses.

Alma spent her last years in Amsterdam with her mother’s family. She never published the manuscript she had worked so hard to finish because she could not explain how the selfless acts of human beings fit into her theory. When Charles Darwin published his “Origin of Species,” she knew she had been right all along.

“The Signature of All Things” has many well-drawn characters. Some of the weak survive; some of the strong do not. It’s written elegantly, in rich prose reminiscent of the 19th century.

There are erotic, moving and exciting moments, and Miss Gilbert’s research into plant life and Tahitian customs is impressive. The reader will enjoy Alma’s journey and perhaps agree with her that “knowledge is the most precious of all commodities.”

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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