Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things

I came to this book expecting very little. Gilbert’s the author of Eat, Pray, Love, so I don’t think my prejudice was entirely unjustified. And the weakest section of this new book is definitely the bit where our heroine travels to Tahiti and discovers that the locals are very different from 19th Century Americans (and also keep stealing her stuff). I think a good general rule might be for Gilbert not to write about white women travelling to other parts of the world.

But it’s also kind of fantastic on some other things.

From this week’s column:

 

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An unintentional theme of my reading this year has been that of women who are absorbed (even obsessed) by their work. It’s telling that this is a rare enough theme for fiction that it should strike one as unusual—I don’t think I’d particularly notice a book about a man with a similar obsession. But we’re less willing to allow women single-minded dedication than we are men; the constraints of family and society and such a basic thing as space so often get in the way. None of this is particularly original; for one thing it’s all in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

But earlier this year I read (and wrote about in this column) Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons, in which Lady Trent manages to defy convention and pursue her fascination with dragons in a world where fantastic beasts are real but so are eighteenth-century gender roles. And Tove Jansson’s Fair Play, whose elderly artists’ work and love are deeply intertwined. I also reread Dorothy Sayers’ brilliant Gaudy Night, which is entirely concerned with the idea that women may find vocations other than marriage and family to which to dedicate the whole of their lives.

And then there’s Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, the biography of a (fictional) woman botanist in the nineteenth century. Alma Whittaker is born into a household fascinated by botany, and has a genius for taxonomy. Eventually she chooses to make moss the focus of her life’s study, and through the lens that her specialization provides her, comes up with a larger theory of how nature works.

It’s tempting to go back to Virginia Woolf here. Woolf invents Judith Shakespeare, fictional sister to William, who has all of her brother’s inventiveness but none of his opportunities. No school, no time or place to work uninterrupted by family, a forced marriage and eventual suicide; all of these circumstances prevent Judith from writing the plays she might have done. No woman, Woolf concludes, could have written Shakespeare’s plays in the age of Shakespeare.

Perhaps no woman could have written Darwin’s work in the age of Darwin. Gilbert acknowledges Alma’s genius, but far more important to her career are the circumstances in which she is born. Her father is rich, having made a fortune growing and trading medicinal plants. Her mother is from a botanical family, is well-educated, and believes in the importance of an education. Alma is given an entire building in which to work and all the funds and encouragement she needs. Almost as important, perhaps, is the fact that she’s not conventionally pretty; at various points in the book she is attracted to men she knows, and it’s easy to imagine her life going very differently had one of them returned her feelings. Married women in the nineteenth century rarely had the opportunity to write treatises on moss and natural philosophy; nor did they get the chance to leave all their worldly possessions and set sail for Tahiti in middle age.

In the event Alma never publishes her great work, though various people urge her to do so. Presumably this is partly to do with the constraints of the historical novel, which cannot too drastically change the past. But I wonder if it’s also for reasons to do with her gender. For years she refuses to publish until one minor doubt has been cleared. Later she discovers that neither Darwin nor Alfred Russel Wallace (who independently arrived at a theory of evolution and who appears in this novel) had a solution either, but this did not stop them from publishing their work and being recognized as among the great scientists of their age.

Alma’s single-mindedness and privileged status often combine to make her particularly bad at relationships with other people, and this is one of the things that makes her work as a character. She’s flawed and frequently unhappy, but she does great work and loves it. Gilbert in her acknowledgements quotes Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies. “I will give you plenty of examples”, says de Pizan of the great women with whom she builds her feminist argument. Gilbert provides us with one.

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