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An Inglorious Life

By (October 1, 2013) 3 Comments

The Signature of All Things1

By Elizabeth Gilbert
Viking, 2013

“What a life you’ve lived!” exclaims Alfred Russel Wallace to Alma Whittaker, heroine of Elizabeth Gilbert’s ambitious new historical novel The Signature of All Things. For Alma, Wallace’s praise is a particular pleasure, for he is her “comrade in obscurity”: both arrived, independently, at the theory of natural selection, and both know they will be forever outshone by their more famous contemporary. But there is satisfaction in having company in the shadows: “Darwin would belong to history, yes, but Alma had Wallace.”

There’s a more literal way in which Alma Whittaker will never belong to history: Gilbert has made her up, in a move reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s famous hypothetical in A Room of One’s Own. “Let me imagine,” says Woolf, “since facts are so hard to come by” — what follows is her fierce, poignant riff on the fate of the fictional Judith Shakespeare, “as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world” as her brother but brought to desperation and death by the forces arrayed against her: “who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?”

Woolf’s vignette illustrates her general argument (“a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”) but also, more specifically, prompts us to recognize and mourn history’s inevitable silence about women whose genius earned them only obscurity. To Woolf’s impassioned litany of absences — “a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, … some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor” — Gilbert now adds her unknown botanist. Where Woolf wonders “what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister,” Gilbert asks “what might have been the experience of a woman in the nineteenth century who rivalled Darwin’s scientific insight and achievement?”

At least in principle, it’s an interesting and also a worthy project. Gilbert can draw on a much fuller archive than Woolf could: we don’t have to rely on our imaginations for the stories of, say, mathematician and astronomer Mary Somerville (for whom Oxford’s Somerville College is named) or paleontologist Mary Anning. Even so, to this day few women scientists are household names, and women’s contributions to our existing body of scientific knowledge have too often gone unacknowledged. Gilbert’s own “Acknowledgments,” with its nod to “all women of science throughout history,” suggests that she intends The Signature of All Things as an homage to their efforts: the novel is a provocation to us to wonder how many stories like Alma’s there might be, who else we might never have heard of.

Yet it’s not ultimately clear how The Signature of All Things serves this feminist project, or if it is even meant to, despite Gilbert’s gesture. The novel is no cri de coeur on behalf of women in science; at most, it critiques their disadvantages obliquely, in that Alma’s substantial accomplishments are enabled by her supportive 2parents and her economic privilege, neither of which is highlighted in the novel as exceptional — though they certainly were. Alma’s obscurity is not (like Judith Shakespeare’s) rooted in the hostile conditions of her life but results from her idiosyncratic choices: she works and writes freely, and both the eminent men to whom she shows her paper on what she calls “A Theory of Competitive Alteration” urge her to publish it. There’s no idea about women in science here to equal, in reach or resonance, Woolf’s about women and fiction.

This confusion of purpose aside, it is indeed quite a life Gilbert has devised for her heroine. The novel follows Alma from her birth in 1800 to her death over 80 years later. Her story seems contrived to maximize the variety of historical and scientific details Gilbert can include — from 18th-century sea voyages to 19th-century mental asylums, from indigenous Tahitian culture to lithography to the properties of medicinal bark. Alma’s father, Henry Whittaker, made his fortune collecting and cultivating botanical specimens, particularly those used as pharmaceuticals. Henry and his Dutch wife Beatrix “encouraged a spirit of investigation in their daughter,” so Alma grows up with no check on her curiosity. Plants are her passion, as they were her father’s; their estate, White Acre, provides all the resources she needs, and by the time she’s nineteen she has “a study of her own.”

Plain, scholarly Alma is doubly a misfit for the predictable 19th-century courtship plot. This is not to say that she doesn’t long for a romantic life, and indeed much of Gilbert’s energy goes into detailing Alma’s discovery of and experimentation with her own sexuality, inspired by volumes of erotica she finds while cataloguing her father’s books. In the dark privacy of the “binding closet” she allows “her head to fill with these stirring and abhorrent thoughts . . . feeling her legs clench and her face grow heated, and her body yank loose once more into a stew of marvelous havoc.” Eventually she organizes her life around the two poles of closet and study: “One room was for the body; one was for the mind.”

3Flickr photo
Alma dedicates herself single-mindedly to understanding moss, “the undervalued phylum,” which offers her all the scope she could possibly want for observation and discovery on a minute scale, and all within the boundaries of White Acre:

Alma put the magnifying lens to her eye and looked again. Now the miniature forest below her gaze sprung into majestic detail. She felt her breath catch. This was a stupefying kingdom. This was the Amazon jungle as seen from the back of a harpy eagle. . . . This was the entire world. This was bigger than a world. This was the firmament of the universe, as seen through one of William Herschel’s mighty telescopes. This was planetary and vast. These were ancient, unexplored galaxies, roiling forth in front of her — and it was all right here!

She immerses herself in this “moss world,” publishing well-received articles and books. Her research gives Gilbert plenty of opportunities for botanical ‘neepery’:

Mosses bore no fruit. Mosses had no roots. Mosses could grow no more than a few inches tall, for they contained no internal cellular skeleton with which to support themselves. Mosses could not transport water within their bodies. Mosses did not even engage in sex. . . . Mosses kept their propagation a mystery to the naked human eye. . . . Moss is inconceivably strong. Moss eats stone; scarcely anything, in turn, eats moss. . . . A single clump of moss can lie dormant and dry for forty years at a stretch, and then vault back again into life with a mere soaking of water.

Her scholarly career thrives, but it’s not until Alma is 48 that she has a chance to fulfill her erotic dreams. Ambrose Pike, creator of the most beautiful botanical lithographs Alma has ever seen, comes to White Acre as a guest. They are fundamentally opposites, he artistic, spiritual, seeking to “arrive at revelation on wings,” she pragmatic, scientific, “advanc[ing] steadily on foot.” Beguiled by his charm, she tries but fails to understand his mysticism, which seems to her based on “a trail of errors.” Yet they have (she thinks) a meeting of the minds when they retire together to Alma’s binding closet to “attempt communion” — which is not a euphemism for sex but a literal description of their endeavor to communicate telepathically. It’s Ambrose’s idea, of course, but Alma’s skepticism is overcome when, in the darkness and silence she senses Ambrose offering himself to her, and accepting her unspoken proposal.

It turns out (as rational Alma ought to have predicted) that the understanding they’ve reached is in fact a terrible misunderstanding. The marriage collapses when Ambrose turns out to be wholly uninterested in consummating it; as a diplomatic way out of their painfully embarrassing situation, he’s sent away to Tahiti on Whittaker Company business. Alma, in the meantime, gives her full attention once more to White Acre, her father, and, of course, moss. She’s devastated, though, when the news comes of Ambrose’s death, and when her father dies she heads to Tahiti herself, her relentless curiosity now directed at the mystery that is Ambrose’s nature.

4Though she does find answers to her questions about Ambrose, the crucial revelation of Alma’s Tahitian adventure is a scientific one that breaks upon her during a rambunctious local game in which she is nearly drowned. Her flash of insight in that primal moment illuminates many details about the natural world that have puzzled her during her long years of patient observation and inquiry:

the world was plainly divided into those who fought an unrelenting battle to live, and those who surrendered and died . . . [this] was also true of every living entity on the planet, from the largest creation down to the humblest. It was even true of mosses. This fact was the very mechanism of nature — the driving force behind all transmutation, behind all variation — and it was the explanation for the entire world. It was the explanation Alma had been seeking forever.

The universal unending struggle for existence becomes the central premise of her “Theory of Competitive Alteration,” just as it is the lynchpin of Darwin’s as yet unheard of On the Origin of Species. “Like two explorers seeking the same treasure trove from two different directions,” Alma muses when, years later, she reads Darwin’s work, “she and Darwin had both stumbled on the identical chest of riches.” Yet out of a diffidence that seems wholly out of character for the expert author of multiple authoritative books and articles, she herself has never published her thesis.

5Alma feels no resentment at Darwin’s fame or her own lost glory: only admiration at his genius and satisfaction that, after all, “she had been correct.” What matters to her, ultimately, is the quest to satisfy her curiosity. “I have not had an illustrious career,” she tells Wallace, but without regret:

I had one original idea in my life — and it happened to be an important idea, one that might have given me [the] chance to be known — but I hesitated to put it forth, and thus I missed my opportunity. I have no husband. I have no heirs. I once had a fortune but I gave it away. . . . I do truly believe I am fortunate. I am fortunate because I have been able to spend my life in study of the world. As such, I have never felt insignificant.

And so, as she literally hugs a tree, the long life of this dedicated naturalist comes to a quiet close, and she joins the ranks of those who, in George Eliot’s words, “rest in unvisited tombs.”

There’s much here to interest, surprise, and move us. Unfortunately, however, Gilbert’s premise is much better than its execution. For all its overt ambition, The Signature of All Things offers in its 500 pages about Alma Whittaker none of the readerly thrills or intellectual provocations that Woolf achieves in her single paragraph about Judith Shakespeare. Ironically — as Woolf’s lament that “no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature” has turned out to be more polemically powerful than historically accurate — one of Gilbert’s problems is that her novel is too conspicuously well-researched. This is always the special hazard of historical fiction, of course, and in this respect at least Gilbert is in good company. The novel’s scientific contexts too require some info-dumping, if only so that we can keep up with the characters. But Gilbert’s abundant information often feels imported rather than integral, a matter of display, not development:

By the 1830s, Alma had already read Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, which proposed that the planet was far older than anyone had yet realized — perhaps even millions of years old. She admired the more recent work of John Phillips, who by 1841 had presented a geological timeline even older than Lyell’s estimates. Phillips believed that Earth had been through three epochs of natural history already (the Paleozoic, the Mesozoic, and the Cenozoic), and he had identified fossilized flora and fauna from each period — included fossilized mosses.

It’s not just the expository passages that are stylistically laborious: the form of the novel overall is plodding. Except for a bit of backtracking at the start, to set up her father’s story, it proceeds chronologically through Alma’s life and ends with her death. This method is logical enough for a fictional biography, but in Gilbert’s hand it becomes mechanical. Her transitions signal movement but provide little momentum: “the girls grew older,” “now it was late July of 1820,” “by 1848,” “over the next three years,” “four years passed.”

6Major events along this timeline, though individually interesting, feel episodic: new elements or people simply appear in the plot as they enter Alma’s life, giving the impression that they occur in the novel because they occurred to Gilbert, rather than because they are integral to some larger design. Why — except that such a thing might have been the case — do Alma’s parents adopt another daughter? Why does this step-sister become an abolitionist, or does Alma’s best friend go mad? Sure, these are plausible enough developments in a general way, but what larger idea do these details serve here, in this book? Why does Ambrose appear on the scene, why does Alma find him so enthralling, and why, after his death, is she so obsessed with understanding him better? Why does she dream of “putting things into her mouth . . . Most of all, the male member” — and why should her pursuit of Ambrose’s Tahitian lover merge with this fantasy so that the climax of both quests is his “allow[ing] her to suck on him”? Why Tahiti at all, why lithography, why moss, why any of it in particular? Too often it seems that the best available answer is “why not?”

There are ideas in The Signature of All Things, to be sure — lots of them. But the many miscellaneous elements of the novel do not cohere around any one of them. If there is a unifying principle, it’s inclusivity: in imagining what a woman botanist’s life might have been like in this period, Gilbert has opted to be as thorough, rather than as artful, as possible. It’s true that real lives do not in fact have plots or themes. But a great biography infers these further dimensions, telling us a story that has meaning and shape, making more of its materials than a literal “and then, and then, and then” recounting. And The Signature of All Things is, after all, a novel and not a biography: it’s a shame (having opted to imagine rather than document) to waste the resources fiction offers.

7Gilbert does try to enhance her exposition with narrative tricks common in novels of the era she’s writing about. Perhaps decades of casual slurs against the “traditional Victorian novel” have led writers to underestimate the difficulty of the effects they achieve: intrusive narration is not an amateur event, and Gilbert (whose own natural voice — as heard in Eat, Pray, Love, for instance — is both smart and charming) comes across here as banal and pretentious:

In all of our lives, there are days that we wish we could see expunged from the record of our very existence. Perhaps we long for that erasure because a particular day brought us such splintering sorrow that we can scarcely bear to think of it ever again. Or we might wish to blot out an episode forever because we behaved so poorly on that day — we were mortifyingly selfish, or foolish to an extraordinary degree. Or perhaps we injured another person and wish to disremember our guilt. Tragically, there are some days in a lifetime when all three of those things happen at once — when we are heartbroken and foolish and unforgivably injurious to others, all at the same time. For Alma, that day was January 10, 1821.

Extended metaphors, too, risk exposing an author’s weaknesses, whether of poetic vision or of logic — or, as here, of both:

The news hit Alma with all the force of an ax head striking granite: it clanged in her ears, shuddered her bones, and struck sparks before her eyes. It knocked a wedge of something out of her — a wedge of something terribly important — and that wedge was sent spinning into the air, never to be found again. If she had not been sitting, she would have fallen down.

These examples also demonstrate Gilbert’s worst tendency in The Signature of All Things, which is to keep on going long after we’ve surely got the point. Nearly as irritating is her fondness for portentously epigrammatic lines:

She had a task.
She would learn mosses.

She thought she knew much, but she knew nothing.
She knew nothing about her sister.
She knew nothing about sacrifice.
She knew nothing about the man she had married.
She knew nothing about the invisible forces that had dictated her life.

She could never return to that life now.

She was not at peace, but at least she was decided.

Setting lines apart does make them stand out, if only spatially, but it doesn’t make them any more profound. It also bespeaks a strange anxiety about readers’ ability to recognize their importance on their own. A similar mistrust (is it of us, or of herself?) perhaps lies behind Gilbert’s heavy-handed signalling of climactic moments:

But the night Alma would remember forever — the night that would later seem to have been the very apogee of her childhood — was the night of the visit from the Italian astronomer.

Alma’s youth — or rather the simplest and most innocent part of it — came to an abrupt end in November of 1809, in the small hours of the night, on an otherwise ordinary Tuesday.

Offsetting such instances of forced melodrama are passages of presumably deliberate archaism (“This is how it came to pass that, by the end of the hour, they were standing together amid Alma’s boulders, discussing Dicranum”; “the world was naught but a school of calamity and an endless burning furnace of tribulation”).

The overall effect of these shifts in register and failures of tone is of a writer not really in control of, or confident about, either her narrator or her novel. If only Gilbert had written her historical fiction the way Sarah Waters or Hilary Mantel write theirs — that is, in a bold, distinctive, deeply historicized but fundamentally contemporary idiom — then we might have come much closer to the 19th-century experience she has reconstructed with such evident pains. As it is, reading the novel is like looking at brilliant but poorly mounted specimens: the intrinsic interest of the materials cannot overcome their faulty presentation, and the result is that Alma’s novel is, like Alma’s life, long, full, but inglorious.

Rohan Maitzen is a Senior Editor at Open Letters Monthly. She teaches in the English Department at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia and blogs at Novel Readings.