“A Violet by a mossy stone, half hidden from the eye” – Passion, sexuality and botanical obsessions
Elizabeth Gilbert’s book title, The Signature of All Things, relates to the ancient, metaphysical herbal theory of The Doctrine of Signatures, originally espoused by Jacob Boehme, which found its way into the Renaissance Herbals like Nicholas Culpeper.
This is a wonderful, historical novel which will particularly delight anyone with an interest in botany, the development of ideas which led to the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, trail-blazing self-taught female scientists, and the dichotomy and struggle between mysticism and pragmatism.
The central character of this book is Alma Whittaker, born at the very beginning of the nineteenth century. She is the daughter of a couple of very plain speaking, wonderfully forthright people for whom plants are a passion and a livelihood. Daughter of an English under-gardener and a Dutch horticulturalist, Alma is brought up in Pennsylvania. Possessed of no beauty but fierce intelligence and spirit she is raised as a freethinking intellectual. Her family circumstances are odd, quirky, eccentric and then some. She is spirited, has dry wit, strong sexual drives which unfortunately are a torment rather than a delight since she does not possess either sexual allure, nor does she fit the mould expected, as the mores of the early nineteenth century look for cultivation, rather than plain-speaking, and modest, flirtatious, male-ego bolstering whims, frills and furbelows rather than a willingness to argue, debate, question and ridicule stupidity.
Alma is an utter delight however for a reader, as it is her feisty, intelligent, curious nature, her very delight in the processes of life itself, and her insatiable thirst to know about the workings of things which is captivating.
During the first hundred or so pages I was absolutely convinced this was a novelised biography, so deep and detailed and involved is all the botanical information, delivered with such delight and passion. Particularly as various naturalists, plant specialists, explorers and scientists make tangential appearance in these pages – Joseph Banks, Darwin, Alfred Wallace, Captain Cook. So I searched for the papers published by our bryologist Alma Whittaker and found………….well what I found made me admire Gilbert’s work even more!
This is a novel which touches on big ideas – which globe trots England, Holland, Pennsylvania, Tahiti, which is quite forthright about female sexual desires, but is not written to titillate, which is at times enormously funny as well as incredibly sad and suffering, and overall, because of Alma’s nature, overflows with delight in the messy stuff of life itself, its anguish and its excitement.
If you only want the page turn of story, there might be frustrations, because our heroine has to linger at the page turn of thought, debate, analysis – it is why does this happen which is the driver, rather more than `and what happens next’ – though much DOES.
The vibrant sprawl of the book IS its delight
My only cavil (as someone who loves botanical plates) I wanted MORE of those lovely black and white line drawings, to pore over and savour.
How could a reader fail to be entranced by the story of Alma Whittaker, from her sturdy babyhood to her 80s, when her nature is to tender and so practical, so stroppy and so adventurous, so bruised and so resilient:
“She adopted a handsome little caterpillar (handsome by caterpillar standards), and rolled him into a leaf to take home as a friend, though she later accidentally murdered him by sitting on him. That was a severe blow, but one carried on.”
Plain Alma appreciates beauty in others, but is raised to accept she is not, and never will be, beautiful, but her pragmatic parents also consider beauty is not so important
“Alma enjoyed the act of sketching……….Her first successes were some quite good renderings of umbels – those hollow-stemmed, flat-flowered members of the carrot family. Her umbels were accurate, though she wished they were more than accurate; she wished they were beautiful. She said as much to her mother, who corrected her: “Beauty is not required. Beauty is accuracy’s distraction.” “
There are a lot of oppositional tensions in this book, which get explored both in intellectual argument between characters, and in the friction and oppositions between characters themselves, and what is playing out in the wider world, both scientifically and politically.
I thoroughly recommend this big rambunctious book and its unrefined, forthright heroine whose presence is an affront to prissy refinement!
I received this as a review copy from the Amazon Vine Programme UK