In The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert returns to fiction, inserting her inimitable voice into an enthralling story of love, adventure and discovery. Spanning much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the novel follows the fortunes of the extraordinary Whittaker family as led by the enterprising Henry Whittaker—a poor-born Englishman who makes a great fortune in the South American quinine trade, eventually becoming the richest man in Philadelphia. Born in 1800, Henry’s brilliant daughter, Alma (who inherits both her father’s money and his mind), ultimately becomes a botanist of considerable gifts herself. As Alma’s research takes her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, she falls in love with a man named Ambrose Pike who makes incomparable paintings of orchids and who draws her in the exact opposite direction—into the realm of the spiritual, the divine, and the magical. Alma is a clear-minded scientist; Ambrose a utopian artist—but what unites this unlikely couple is a desperate need to understand the workings of this world and the mechanisms behind all life.
Exquisitely researched and told at a galloping pace, The Signature of All Things soars across the globe—from London to Peru to Philadelphia to Tahiti to Amsterdam, and beyond. Along the way, the story is peopled with unforgettable characters: missionaries, abolitionists, adventurers, astronomers, sea captains, geniuses, and the quite mad. But most memorable of all, it is the story of Alma Whittaker, who—born in the Age of Enlightenment, but living well into the Industrial Revolution—bears witness to that extraordinary moment in human history when all the old assumptions about science, religion, commerce, and class were exploding into dangerous new ideas. Written in the bold, questing spirit of that singular time, Gilbert’s wise, deep, and spellbinding tale is certain to capture the hearts and minds of readers.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Hometown:Hudson Valley, New York
Date of Birth:July 18, 1969
Place of Birth:Waterbury, Connecticut
Education:BA, New York University, 1991 (Political Science)
Read an Excerpt
Alma Whittaker, born with the century, slid into our world on the fifth of January, 1800.
Swiftly—nearly immediately—opinions began to form around her.
Alma’s mother, upon viewing the infant for the first time, felt quite satisfied with the outcome. Beatrix Whittaker had suffered poor luck thus far generating an heir. Her first three attempts at conception had vanished in sad rivulets before they’d ever quickened. Her most recent attempt—a perfectly formed son—had come right to the brink of life, but had then changed his mind about it on the very morning he was meant to be born, and arrived already departed. After such losses, any child who survives is a satisfactory child.
Holding her robust infant, Beatrix murmured a prayer in her native Dutch. She prayed that her daughter would grow up to be healthy and sensible and intelligent, and would never form associations with overly powdered girls, or laugh at vulgar stories, or sit at gaming tables with careless men, or read French novels, or behave in a manner suited only to a savage Indian, or in any way whatsoever become the worst sort of discredit to a good family; namely, that she not grow up to be een onnozelaar, a simpleton. Thus concluded her blessing—or what constitutes a blessing, from so austere a woman as Beatrix Whittaker.
The midwife, a German-born local woman, was of the opinion that this had been a decent birth in a decent house, and thus Alma Whittaker was a decent baby. The bedroom had been warm, soup and beer had been freely offered, and the mother had been stalwart—just as one would expect from the Dutch. Moreover, the midwife knew that she would be paid, and paid handsomely. Any baby who brings money is an acceptable baby. Therefore, the midwife offered a blessing to Alma as well, although without excessive passion.
Hanneke de Groot, the head housekeeper of the estate, was less impressed. The baby was neither a boy nor was it pretty. It had a face like a bowl of porridge, and was pale as a painted floor. Like all children, it would bring work. Like all work, it would probably fall on her shoulders. But she blessed the child anyway, because the blessing of a new baby is a responsibility, and Hanneke de Groot always met her responsibilities. Hanneke paid off the midwife and changed the bedsheets. She was helped in her efforts, although not ably, by a young maid—a talkative country girl and recent addition to the household—who was more interested in looking at the baby than in tidying up the bedroom. The maid’s name does not bear recording here, because Hanneke de Groot would dismiss the girl as useless the next day, and send her off without references. Nonetheless, for that one night, the useless and doomed maid fussed over the new baby, and longed for a baby herself, and imparted a rather sweet and sincere blessing upon young Alma.
Dick Yancey—a tall, intimidating Yorkshireman, who worked for the gentleman of the house as the iron-handed enforcer of all his international trade concerns (and who happened to be residing at the estate that January, waiting for the Philadelphia ports to thaw so he could proceed on to the Dutch East Indies)—had few words to say about the new infant. To be fair, he was not much given to excessive conversation under any circumstances. When told that Mrs. Whittaker had given birth to a healthy baby girl, Mr. Yancey merely frowned and pronounced, with characteristic economy of speech, “Hard trade, living.” Was that a blessing? Difficult to say. Let us give him the benefit of the doubt and take it as one. Surely he did not intend it as a curse.
As for Alma’s father—Henry Whittaker, the gentleman of the estate—he was pleased with his child. Most pleased. He did not mind that the infant was not a boy, nor that it was not pretty. He did not bless Alma, but only because he was not the blessing type. (“God’s business is none of my business,” he frequently said.) Without reservation, though, Henry admired his child. Then again, he had made his child, and Henry Whittaker’s tendency in life was to admire without reservation everything he made.
To mark the occasion, Henry harvested a pineapple from his largest greenhouse and divided it in equal shares with everyone in the household. Outside it was snowing, a perfect Pennsylvania winter, but this man possessed several coal-fired greenhouses of his own design—structures that made him not only the envy of every plantsman and botanist in the Americas, but also blisteringly rich—and if he wanted a pineapple in January, by God he could have a pineapple in January. Cherries in March, as well.
He then retired to his study and opened up his ledger, where, as he did every night, he recorded all manner of estate transactions, both official and intimate. He began: “A new nobbel and entresting pasennger has joyned us,” and continued with the details, the timing, and the expenses of Alma Whittaker’s birth. His penmanship was shamefully crabbed. Each sentence was a crowded village of capital letters and small letters, living side by side in tight misery, crawling up on one another as though trying to escape the page. His spelling was several degrees beyond arbitrary, and his punctuation brought reason to sigh with unhappiness.
But Henry wrote up his account, nonetheless. It was important for him to keep track of things. While he knew that these pages would look appalling to any educated man, he also knew that nobody would ever see his writing—except his wife. When Beatrix recovered her strength, she would transcribe his notes into her own ledgers, as she always did, and her elegantly penned translation of Henry’s scrawls would become the official household record. The partner of his days, was Beatrix—and a good value, at that. She would do this task for him, and a hundred other tasks besides.
God willing, she would be back at it shortly.
Paperwork was already piling up.
The Tree of Fevers
For the first five years of her life, Alma Whittaker was indeed a mere passenger in the world—as we all are passengers in such early youth—and so her story was not yet noble, nor was it particularly interesting, beyond the fact that this homely toddler passed her days without illness or incident, surrounded by a degree of wealth nearly unknown in the America of that time, even within elegant Philadelphia. How her father came to be in possession of such great wealth is a story worth telling here, while we wait for the girl to grow up and catch our interest again. For it was no more common in 1800 than it has ever been for a poor-born and nearly illiterate man to become the richest inhabitant of his city, and so the means by which Henry Whittaker prospered are indeed interesting—although perhaps not noble, as he himself would have been the first to confess.
Henry Whittaker was born in 1760 in the village of Richmond, just up the Thames from London. He was the youngest son of poor parents who had a few too many children already. He was raised in two small rooms with a floor of beaten earth, with an almost adequate roof, with a meal on the hearth nearly every day, with a mother who did not drink and a father who did not beat his family—by comparison to many families of the day, in other words, a nearly genteel existence. His mother even had a private spot of dirt behind the house in which to grow larkspurs and lupines, decoratively, like a lady. But Henry was not fooled by larkspurs and lupines. He grew up sleeping one wall away from the pigs, and there was not a moment in his life when poverty did not humiliate him.
Perhaps Henry would have taken less offense at his destiny had he never seen wealth around him against which to compare his own poor circumstances—but the boy grew up witnessing not only wealth, but royalty. There was a palace at Richmond, and there were pleasure gardens there, too, called Kew, cultivated with expertise by Princess Augusta, who had brought with her from Germany a retinue of gardeners eager to make a false and regal landscape out of real and humble English meadows. Her son, the future King George III, spent his childhood summers there. When he became king, George sought to turn Kew into a botanical garden worthy of any Continental rival. The English, on their cold, wet, isolated island, were far behind the rest of Europe on botanizing, and George III was eager to catch up.
Henry’s father was an orchardman at Kew—a humble man, respected by his masters, as much as anyone could respect a humble orchardman. Mr. Whittaker had a gift for fruiting trees, and a reverence for them. (“They pay the land for its trouble,” he would say, “unlike all the others.”) He had once saved the king’s favorite apple tree by whip-grafting a scion of the ailing specimen onto sturdier rootstock and claying it secure. The tree had fruited off the new graft that very year, and soon produced bushels. For this miracle, Mr. Whittaker had been nicknamed “the Apple Magus” by the king himself.
The Apple Magus, for all his talents, was a simple man, with a timid wife, but they somehow turned out six rough and violent sons (including one boy called “the Terror of Richmond” and two others who would end up dead in tavern brawls). Henry, the youngest, was in some ways the roughest of them all, and perhaps needed to be, to survive his brothers. He was a stubborn and enduring little whippet, a thin and exploding contrivance, who could be trusted to receive his brothers’ beatings stoically, and whose fearlessness was frequently put to the test by others, who liked to dare him into taking risks. Even apart from his brothers, Henry was a dangerous experimentalist, a lighter of illicit fires, a roof-scampering taunter of housewives, a menace to smaller children; a boy who one would not have been surprised to learn had fallen from a church steeple or drowned in the Thames—though by sheer happenstance these scenarios never came to pass.
But unlike his brothers, Henry had a redeeming attribute. Two of them, to be exact: he was intelligent, and he was interested in trees. It would be exaggeration to claim that Henry revered trees, as his father did, but he was interested in trees because they were one of the few things in his impoverished world that could readily be learned, and experience had already instructed Henry that learning things gave a person advantage over other people. If one wanted to continue living (and Henry did) and if one wanted to ultimately prosper (and Henry did), then anything that could be learned, should be learned. Latin, penmanship, archery, riding, dancing—all of these were out of reach to Henry. But he had trees, and he had his father, the Apple Magus, who patiently took the trouble to teach him.
So Henry learned all about the grafter’s tools of clay and wax and knives, and about the tricks of budding, booting, clefting, planting, and pruning with a judicious hand. He learned how to transplant trees in the springtime, if the soil was retentive and dense, or how to do it in the autumn, if the soil was loose and dry. He learned how to stake and drape the apricots in order to save them from wind, how to cultivate citruses in the Orangery, how to smoke the mildew off the gooseberries, how to amputate diseased limbs from the figs, and when not to bother. He learned how to strip the tattered bark from an old tree and take the thing right down to the ground, without sentimentality or remorse, in order to demand life back out of it for a dozen more seasons to come.
Henry learned much from his father, though he was ashamed of the man, who he felt was weak. If Mr. Whittaker truly was the Apple Magus, Henry reasoned, then why had the king’s admiration not been parlayed into wealth? Stupider men were rich—many of them. Why did the Whittakers still live with pigs, when just nearby were the great wide green lawns of the palace, and the pleasant houses on Maid of Honor Row, where the queen’s servants slept on French linens? Henry, climbing to the top of an elaborate garden wall one day, had spied a lady, dressed in an ivory gown, practicing manège on her immaculate white horse while a servant played the violin to entertain her. People were living like this, right there in Richmond, while the Whittakers did not even have a floor.
But Henry’s father never fought for anything fine. He’d earned the same paltry wage for thirty years, and had never once disputed it, nor had he ever complained about working outdoors in the foulest of weather for so long that his health had been ruined by it. Henry’s father had chosen the carefullest steps through life, particularly when interacting with his betters—and he regarded everyone as his better. Mr. Whittaker made a point never to offend, and never to take advantage, even when advantages may have been ripe for plucking. He told his son, “Henry, do not be bold. You can butcher the sheep only once. But if you are careful, you can shear the sheep every year.”
With a father so forceless and complacent, what could Henry expect to receive out of life, aside from whatever he could clutch at with his own hands? A man should profit, Henry started telling himself when he was only thirteen years old. A man should butcher a sheep every day.
But where to find the sheep?
That’s when Henry Whittaker started stealing.
By the mid-1770s, the gardens at Kew had become a botanical Noah’s Ark, with thousands of specimens already in the collection, and new consignments arriving weekly—hydrangeas from the Far East, magnolias from China, ferns from the West Indies. What’s more, Kew had a new and ambitious superintendent: Sir Joseph Banks, fresh from his triumphant voyage around the world as chief botanist for Captain Cook’s HMS Endeavour. Banks, who worked without salary (he was interested only in the glory of the British Empire, he said, although others suggested he might be just the slightest bit interested in the glory of Sir Joseph Banks), was now collecting plants with furious passion, committed to creating a truly spectacular national garden.
Oh, Sir Joseph Banks! That beautiful, whoring, ambitious, competitive adventurer! The man was everything Henry’s father was not. By the age of twenty-three, a drenching inheritance of six thousand pounds a year had made Banks one of the richest men in England. Arguably, he was also the handsomest. Banks could easily have spent his life in idle luxury, but instead he sought to become the boldest of botanical explorers—a vocation he took up without sacrificing a bit of flash or glamour. Banks had paid for a good deal of Captain Cook’s first expedition out of his own pocket, which had afforded him the right to bring along on that cramped ship two black man-servants, two white manservants, a spare botanist, a scientific secretary, two artists, a draftsman, and a pair of Italian greyhounds. During his adventure, Banks had seduced Tahitian queens, danced naked with savages on beaches, and watched young heathen girls having their buttocks tattooed in the moonlight. He had brought home with him to England a Tahitian man named Omai, to be kept as a pet, and he had also brought home nearly four thousand plant specimens—almost half of which the world of science had never before seen. Sir Joseph Banks was the most famous and dashing man in England, and Henry admired him enormously.
But he stole from him anyway.
It was merely that the opportunity was there, and that the opportunity was so obvious. Banks was known in scientific circles not merely as a great botanical collector, but also as a great botanical hoarder. Gentlemen of botany, in those polite days, generally shared their discoveries with each other freely, but Banks shared nothing. Professors, dignitaries, and collectors came to Kew from all over the world with the reasonable hope of obtaining seeds and cuttings, as well as samples from Banks’s vast herbarium—but Banks turned them all away.
Young Henry admired Banks for a hoarder (he would not have shared his own treasure, either, had he possessed any) but he soon saw opportunity in the angered faces of these thwarted international visitors. He would wait for them just outside the grounds of Kew, catching the men as they were leaving the gardens, sometimes catching them cursing Sir Joseph Banks in French, German, Dutch, or Italian. Henry would approach, ask the men what samples they desired, and promise to procure those samples by week’s end. He always carried a paper tablet and a carpenter’s pencil with him; if the men did not speak English, Henry had them draw pictures of what they needed. They were all excellent botanical artists, so their needs were easily made clear. Late in the evenings, Henry would sneak into the greenhouses, dart past the workers who kept the giant stoves going through the cold nights, and steal plants for profit.
He was just the boy for the task. He was good at plant identification, expert at keeping cuttings alive, a familiar enough face around the gardens not to arouse suspicion, and adept at covering his tracks. Best of all, he did not seem to require sleep. He worked all day with his father in the orchards, and then stole all night—rare plants, precious plants, lady’s slippers, tropical orchids, carnivorous marvels from the New World. He kept all the botanical drawings that the distinguished gentlemen made for him, too, and studied those drawings until he knew every stamen and petal of every plant the world desired.
Like all good thieves, Henry was scrupulous about his own security. He trusted nobody with his secret, and buried his earnings in several caches throughout the gardens at Kew. He never spent a farthing of it. He let his silver rest dormant in the soil, like good rootstock. He wanted that silver to accumulate, until it could burst forth hugely, and buy him the right to become a rich man.
Within a year Henry had several regular clients. One of them, an old orchid cultivator from the Paris Botanical Gardens, gave the boy perhaps the first pleasing compliment of his life: “You’re a useful little fingerstink, aren’t you?” Within two years, Henry was driving a vigorous trade, selling plants not only to serious men of botany, but also to a circle of wealthy London gentry, who longed for exotic specimens for their own collections. Within three years, he was illicitly shipping plant samples to France and Italy, expertly packing the cuttings in moss and wax to ensure they survived the journey.
At the end, however, after three years of this felonious enterprise, Henry Whittaker was caught—and by his own father.
Mr. Whittaker, normally a deep sleeper, had noticed his son leaving the house one night after midnight and, heartsick with a father’s instinctive suspicion, had followed the boy to the greenhouse and seen the selecting, the thieving, the expert packing. He recognized immediately the illicit care of a robber.
Henry’s father was not a man who had ever beat his sons, even when they deserved it (and they frequently did deserve it), and he didn't beat Henry that night, either. Nor did he confront the boy directly. Henry didn't even realize he’d been caught. No, Mr. Whittaker did something far worse. First thing the next morning, he asked for a personal audience with Sir Joseph Banks. It was not often that a poor fellow like Whittaker could request a word with a gentleman like Banks, but Henry’s father had earned just enough respect around Kew in thirty years of tireless labor to warrant the intrusion, if only just this once. He was an old and poor man, indeed, but he was also the Apple Magus, the savior of the king’s favorite tree, and that title bought him entrance.
Mr. Whittaker came at Banks almost upon his knees, head bowed, penitent as a saint. He confessed the shaming story about his son, along with his suspicion that Henry had probably been stealing for years. He offered his resignation from Kew as punishment, if the boy would only be spared arrest or harm. The Apple Magus promised to take his family far away from Richmond, and see to it that Kew, and Banks, would never again be sullied by the Whittaker name.
Banks—impressed by the orchardman’s heightened sense of honor— refused the resignation, and sent for young Henry personally. Again, this was an unusual occurrence. If it was rare for Sir Joseph Banks to meet with an illiterate plantsman in his study, it was exceedingly rare for him to meet with an illiterate plantsman’s thieving sixteen-year-old son. Probably, he ought to have simply had the boy arrested. But theft was a hanging crime, and children far younger than Henry got the rope—and for far less serious infractions. While the attack on his collection was galling, Banks felt sympathy enough for the father to investigate the problem himself before summoning the bailiff.
The problem, when it walked into Sir Joseph Banks’s study, turned out to be a spindly, ginger-haired, tight-lipped, milky-eyed, broad-shouldered, sunken-chested youth, with pale skin already rubbed raw by too much exposure to wind, rain, and sun. The boy was underfed but tall, and his hands were large; Banks saw that he might grow into a big man someday, if he could get a proper meal.
Henry did not know precisely why he had been summoned to Banks’s offices but he had sufficient brains to suspect the worst, and he was much alarmed. Only through sheer thick-sided stubbornness could he enter Banks’s study without visibly trembling.
God’s love, though, what a beautiful study it was! And how splendidly Joseph Banks was dressed, in his glossy wig and gleaming black velvet suit, polished shoe buckles and white stockings. Henry had no sooner passed through the door than he had already priced out the delicate mahogany writing desk, covetously scanned the fine collection boxes stacked on every shelf, and glanced with admiration at the handsome portrait of Captain Cook on the wall. Mother of dead dogs, the mere frame for that portrait must have cost ninety pounds!
Unlike his father, Henry did not bow in Banks’s presence, but stood before the great man, looking him straight in the eye. Banks, who was seated, permitted Henry to stand in silence, perhaps waiting for a confession or a plea. But Henry neither confessed nor pleaded, nor hung his head in shame, and if Sir Joseph Banks thought Henry Whittaker was fool enough to speak first under such hot circumstances, then he did not know Henry Whittaker.
Therefore, after a long silence, Banks commanded, “Tell me, then—why should I not see you hang at Tyburn?”
So that’s it, Henry thought. I’m snapped. Nonetheless, the boy grappled for a plan. He needed to find a tactic, and he needed to find it in one quick and slender moment. He had not spent his life being beaten senseless by his older brothers to have learned nothing about fighting. When a bigger and stronger opponent has landed the first blow, you have but one chance to swing back before you will be pummeled into clay, and you’d best come back with something unexpected.
“Because I’m a useful little fingerstink,” Henry said.
Banks, who enjoyed unusual incidents, barked with surprised laughter. “I confess that I don’t see the use of you, young man. All you have done for me is to rob me of my hard-won treasure.”
It wasn't a question, but Henry answered it nonetheless.
“I might’ve trimmed a bit,” he said.
“You don’t deny this?”
“All the braying in the world won’t change it, do it?”
Again, Banks laughed. He may have thought the boy was putting on a show of false courage, but Henry’s courage was real. As was his fear. As was his lack of penitence. For the whole of his life, Henry would always find penitence weak.
Banks changed tack. “I must say, young man, that you are a crowning distress to your father.”
“And him to me, sir,” Henry fired back.
Once more, the surprised bark of laughter from Banks. “Is he, then? What harm has that good man ever done to you?”
“Made me poor, sir,” Henry said. Then, suddenly realizing everything, Henry added, “It were him, weren’t it? Who peached me over to you?”
“Indeed it was. He’s an honorable soul, your father.”
Henry shrugged. “Not to me, eh?”
Banks took this in and nodded, generously conceding the point. Then he asked, “To whom have you been selling my plants?”
Henry ticked off the names on his fingers: “Mancini, Flood, Willink, LeFavour, Miles, Sather, Evashevski, Feuerle, Lord Lessig, Lord Garner—”
Banks cut him off with a wave. He stared at the boy with open astonishment. Oddly, if the list had been more modest, Banks might have been angrier. But these were the most esteemed botanical names of the day. A few of them Banks called friends. How had the boy found them? Some of these men hadn't been to England in years. The child must be exporting. What kind of campaign had this creature been running under his nose?
“How do you even know how to handle plants?” Banks asked.
“I always knowed plants, sir, for my whole life. It’s like I knowed it all beforehand.”
“And these men, do they pay you?”
“Or they don’t get their plants, do they?” Henry said.
“You must be earning well. Indeed, you must have accumulated quite a pile of money in the past years.”
Henry was too cunning to answer this.
“What have you done with the money you’ve earned, young man?” Banks pushed on. “I can’t say you’ve invested it in your wardrobe. Without a doubt, your earnings belong to Kew. So where is it all?”
“Dice, sir. I have a weakness of the gambling, see.”
That may or may not have been true, Banks thought. But the boy certainly had as much nerve as any two-footed beast he had ever encountered. Banks was intrigued. He was a man, after all, who kept a heathen for a pet, and who—to be honest—enjoyed the reputation of being half heathen himself. His station in life required that he at least purport to admire gentility, but secretly he preferred a bit of wildness. And what a little wild cockerel was Henry Whittaker! Banks was growing less inclined by the moment to hand over this curious item of humanity to the constables.
Henry, who saw everything, saw something happening in Banks’s face— a softening of countenance, a blooming curiosity, a sliver of a chance for his life to be saved. Intoxicated with a compulsion for self-preservation, the boy vaulted into that sliver of hope, one last time.
“Don’t put me to hang, sir,” Henry said. “You’ll regret it that you did.”
“What do you propose I do with you, instead?”
“Put me to use.”
“Why should I?” asked Banks.
“Because I’m better than anyone.”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for The Signature of All Things
“Gilbert has established herself as a straight-up storyteller who dares us into adventures of worldly discovery, and this novel stands as a winning next act. The Signature of All Things is a bracing homage to the many natures of genius and the inevitable progress of ideas, in a world that reveals its best truths to the uncommonly patient minds.”– Barbara Kingsolver, The New York Times Book Review
“Unlike anything Gilbert has ever written…Its prose has the elegant sheen of a 19th-century epic, but its concerns — the intersection of science and faith, the feminine struggle for fulfillment, the dubious rise of the pharmaceutical industry — are essentially modern… Gilbert has returned to her roots in fiction and written the sort of rip-roaring tale that would have been considered entertainment for the masses 150 years ago.” – Steve Almond, The New York Times Magazine
“The most ambitious and purely imaginative work in Gilbert’s 20-year career: a deeply researched and vividly rendered historical novel about a 19th century female botanist.”– Alexandra Alter, The Wall Street Journal
“A radiant novel…that rare literary achievement, a big, panoramic novel about life and love that captures the idiom and tenor of its age…Like Victor Hugo or Emile Zola, Gilbert captures something important about the wider world in The Signature of All Things: a pivotal moment in history when progress defined us in concrete ways.” – Marie Arana, The Washington Post
“A delightful” book…one of the best of the year…Gilbert marries the technical, cultural and spiritual with a warm, frankly funny wit that adds richness to all three, her central character’s evolution going lockstep with her actual discovery of evolution. This kind of storytelling is rare – one in which an author can depict the particulars of a moss colony as skillfully as she maps the landscape of the human heart.”– Lizzie Skurnick, “All Things Considered,” NPR
“Gilbert’s sumptuous third novel, her first in thirteen years, draws openly on nineteenth-century forebears: Dickens, Eliot, and Henry James…Gilbert’s prose is by turns flinty, funny, and incandescent.”– The New Yorker
“Engrossing…The Signature of All Things is one of those rewardingly fact-packed books that make readers feel bold and smart by osmosis. Alma commits her life to ceaseless study, but reading this vibrant, hot-blooded book about her takes no work at all.”– Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“Gilbert has mulled, from the confines of her desk, the correlations of nature, the principle that connects a grain of sand to a galaxy, to create a character who does the same – who makes the study of existence her life’s purpose. And in doing so, she has written the novel of a lifetime.”– Katie Arnold-Ratliff, O, The Oprah Magazine
“A fabulous read…Gilbert has returned to fiction with a boisterous historical novel about a 19th-century botanist named Alma Whittaker…Alma’s fabulous brain is a hot pot of scientific knowledge, lonely feminist turmoil and erotic longing. All of which makes her an irresistible character to accompany through history and around the world.”– Helen Rogan, People
“[An] action-packed tale…Gilbert’s latest work has modern resonance…her engaging, lively style is once more on display – along with an impressive versatility. Few among the legions of contemporary memoir writers could turn out a novel as imaginative as this one.” – Clare McHugh, The Wall Street Journal
“Raucously ingenious…Signature is not just a historical novel that spans two centuries and many geographies. It’s a 500-page novel of ideas…I found unshackled joy on every page.”– Beth Kephart, The Chicago Tribune
“A beautiful rumination on a life from start to near end, specifically the life of stubborn, talented, nineteenth-century-Philadelphia-dwelling Alma Whittaker…the real treat of the text is Gilbert’s lyrical writing. She manages to spin the study of mosses into something fascinating.”– Cotton Codinha, Elle Magazine
“With a charming, flawed heroine straight out of Jane Austen, a Dickensian rags-to-riches story and thwarted romances that hark back to the Brontes, Elizabeth Gilbert has taken cues from the greatest nineteenth-century writers for her big nineteenth-century novel…it is gorgeously detailed, robustly filled with elements of bygone times and esoteric study.”– Carolyn Kellogg, The Los Angeles Times
“This splendid novel by Elizabeth Gilbert spans much of a century (the 1800s) and circumnavigates the globe, in a page-turner that is equal parts family saga, love story, and meditation on the origin of species – particularly our own.”– Parade Magazine
“Gilbert’s writing is so smart and richly drawn that it does what all the best books do: it sweeps you up.” – Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly
“A sweeping tale of fortune, adventure, and the quinine trade…Alma’s extraordinary life unspools like a Jane Austen novel…here Gilbert claims her rightful spot as one of the 21st century’s best American writers.”̵
Reading Group Guide
She begins life as a baby with "a face like a bowl of porridge . . . pale as a painted floor" (p. 2). She is to end it as a biologist of unique accomplishments, mentioned in the same breath with the great evolutionists Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin. In the more than eighty years in between, she will know extraordinary wealth and almost total deprivation. She will experience the heights of passion and the utter depths of loneliness. She will very nearly circle the globe in search of answers, both to scientific mysteries and to the inexplicable riddles of the human heart. She is Alma Whittaker, the heroine of Elizabeth Gilbert's panoramic novel The Signature of All Things, and she is one of the most memorable creations in the current generation of American fiction.
Alma is the only biological daughter of Henry Whittaker, an Englishman who has used every means within his grasp to rise from poverty to wrestle wealth from a scornful and resistant world. The ticket to Henry's success has been an almost instinctive knowledge of plants, passed down to him by his own father, a master horticulturist at the court of King George III. Unlike his threadbare father, Henry has learned how to make plants pay; he comes to dominate the market for the trees used to produce quinine and becomes the wealthiest man in his adopted home of Philadelphia. Alma inherits her father's fascination with botany, as well as his love of argument and confrontation, but she also has what he does not have: an unquenchable sense of wonder and a zeal for knowledge that is driven not by the love of profit, but by the love of life and all that makes it function. Lonely and misunderstood, but also brilliant and intensely curious, Alma studies the humblest forms of plant life, unwittingly embarking on a path of inquiry that will lead her to the darkest mysteries of evolutionary theory. On the way, she falls in love with Ambrose Pike, a uniquely gifted artist whose airy idealism and spiritual light attract her like a moth to a flame. Body clashes with spirit and science intertwines with religion as the two unlikely lovers journey, together and apart, toward their strange and improbable destinies.
Brilliantly researched and lovingly crafted by the internationally renowned author of Eat, Pray, Love, The Signature of All Things carries the reader breathlessly across the globe. The novel also covers equally vast spaces in human consciousness, ranging from the coolly rational to the pitiably insane. It is a work of extraordinary faith and of deep scientific reflection. Perhaps above all, it is the story of an irrepressible woman, determined to satisfy her most powerful urges toward both love and knowledge. A novel immersed in all the great questions of the nineteenth century, The Signature of All Thingsis also very much a novel for our times-and for all time.
ABOUT ELIZABETH GILBERT
Born in Waterbury, Connecticut, Elizabeth Gilbert grew up on a family Christmas-tree farm and went on to study political science at New York University. Her first book, a short-story collection titled Pilgrims, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her first novel, Stern Men, was named a New York Times Notable Book. Her first nonfiction book, The Last American Man, was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Gilbert achieved superstardom with her 2006 memoir Eat, Pray, Love, which has sold more than ten million copies. Her follow-up memoir, Committed, also topped the New York Times bestseller list. Gilbert lives in Frenchtown, New Jersey.
A CONVERSATION WITH ELIZABETH GILBERT
After the stunning dual success of your memoirs Eat, Pray, Love and Committed, the safer, more obvious choice for you would have been to continue in nonfiction. What was it that prompted you to return to the novel with The Signature of All Things?
I needed to come home to my roots as a writer. Fiction is where I began my writing journey, and all I ever wanted to be was a pure novelist. Fate intervened and led me into the world of memoir (and believe me, I am grateful for my success there!), but the next thing I knew, a dozen years had passed since I'd written a word of fiction. I simply couldn't let another year go by, so I embarked on this novel.
How difficult is it for you to shift gears between genres?
I thought it would be more difficult than it was. I feared I had lost the skill of fiction entirely (almost the way you can lose a foreign language if you don't practice it often) and so I was intimidated by the prospect of returning to the form of a novel. As a result of my fear, I overprepared for this book ridiculously. I did ten times the research I actually needed, just to feel covered and safe. Up till the very day I put down the research and began actually writing the novel, I honestly wasn't sure if I could do it. But as soon as I began, the moment Alma was born, I realized, "Oh! I was so wrong! Fiction isn't a foreign language; it's my mother tongue!" I had forgotten nothing, except the joy of it. It felt like a homecoming.
The mass popularity you achieved with Eat, Pray, Love has probably changed your definition of success. As you go forward, what does it mean to you now to succeed as a writer?
I'm lucky in that pressure for success is completely off for me-at least as far as I'm concerned. Fortunately, there is no way to match the phenomenon of Eat, Pray, Love, so I don't even have to attempt it! What Eat, Pray, Love did for me was to give me the liberty (both artistically and financially) to pursue my own private literary passions in whatever direction I wanted. There could be no Signature of All Things without the beneficence of Eat, Pray, Love. That book has been my great enabler, my great patron. My notion of success now is simply to keep following my interests, wherever they may take me.
The epigraph of The Signature of All Things reads, "What life is, we know not. What life does, we know well." That line is a bit of a riddle in itself. How do you think it comments on Alma Whittaker's story?
I think it's such a lovely quote because it sheds light on the dilemma of all scientific inquiry. Life's basic doings are fairly simple to decode. From careful observations, we have been able to figure out how systems like photosynthesis and cell regeneration and reproduction all function. That part is straightforward. But that still doesn't tell us what life IS. Why are we here? Why do we have these extraordinarily overevolved minds? Why do we long for the divine? Why do we suffer? Why do we feel that we have souls? Why are we moral or immoral? Why do we contradict and surprise ourselves so? Despite all our intellect, we are no closer to answering these questions than ever-as Alma, by the end of her journey, well realized.
The title of your novel alludes to a theory set forth by a sort of scientific mystic from the 1500s, Jacob Boehme, who argued that the entire natural world is a divine code, crafted and encrypted by God for the betterment of humankind. Boehme was a pretty weak scientist but a highly inspirational thinker. Why did you choose his phrase "the signature of all things" as the name of your novel?
First of all, the phrase itself is simply beautiful. But I also felt that Boehme's theory speaks to a common longing that unites scientists, the religious, and the artistic-namely, an urge to break the code, to look behind the veil, to be shown the secret answers. I feel as though all the main characters in the novel are, in their own ways, searching for the Signature of All Things. They don't merely want some of the answers: they want THE answer.
Your book has much of the feel of a novel written in the nineteenth century. How, as a writer, did you go about establishing the authenticity of your novel's mood?
I completely immersed myself in nineteenth-century prose and ideas. Fortunately this was fun for me; I have always had a particular love for writers like Dickens, Trollope, Eliot, Austen, and James. I went back and reread many of those great novels, and, of course, I also sought out as much information as I could on the botanical exploration and history of the day. But mostly I read letters-not only letters of great naturalists, but also the letters of common people. Those unguarded everyday letters are where I could best hear people's common speech, and that helped me fall down the rabbit hole of time and language.
Henry Whittaker, your heroine's father, dominates the first fifty pages of the book, and he rules much of his daughter Alma's life thereafter. He's a trifle like a premodern Gatsby: an uncultured roughneck who parlays his I'll-show-them attitude into an incalculable fortune. Do you see his story as a commentary on the temptations and pitfalls of the American Dream?
I didn't intend for Henry to be a commentary on the American Dream, to be honest . . . partially because I don't totally see Henry as American and partially because I don't see his trajectory as being tragic in the manner of Gatsby. Henry doesn't have enough self-doubt or self-awareness to be a tragedy, and he never really fails, either. There is nothing he longs for that he does not achieve-except immortality, of course. I see Henry more as a countryless force of nature, as a creature who is, from birth to death, composed of pure and unstoppable will. It was exhilarating for me to write Henry Whittaker, because he is so huge and relentless and shameless. It was so fun to write of his galloping ascent and his stubborn endurance. He's the power source whose energy fuels the whole first half of the book. I think of him like the booster rocket who eventually thrusts Alma out into the stratosphere. Yes, he is domineering, but he also loves and challenges his daughter, and without the example of his ruthless might, Alma could never have been the force that she turns out to be.
Henry represents a highly seductive vision of American possibility. But Alma ultimately and emphatically rejects that vision. Why?
Because she didn't earn it herself. I think Alma realizes around the age of fifty that the Whittaker fortune was never really hers-that, in fact, she has never made or done anything on her own. This realization is partially what spurs her own journey, and what makes her walk away from her inheritance. Also, she feels she has reparations to make-to her sister, Prudence, and to society as a whole-for the Whittaker family's selfishness. Ultimately, she can't stay in America because there is nothing left there for her to test herself against. She needs to leave it all behind in order to find out what she's made of.
Your heroine, Alma Whittaker, may be one of the most fully developed characters in all of American fiction. Were there real-life nineteenth-century women to whom you referred in creating her?
I looked closely at the lives of such women as Mrs. Mary Treat (a New Jersey-based expert on carnivorous plants who was a correspondent of Darwin's), Elizabeth Knight Britton (a respected moss expert who founded the New York Botanical Gardens along with her husband), and Marianne North (a wonderful and fearless botanical illustrator who, like Alma, set out alone to explore the world quite late in life) . . . and many more besides! In the nineteenth century, botany was considered the only science that was truly open to women (flowers and gardens being "feminine" topics, you know), so I found no shortage of brilliant and tireless female researchers from whom to draw inspiration for Alma's work. Emotionally, though, Alma is my own creation. From the very first page, I simply felt that I knew her in my bones, and that I had an obligation to tell her story as honorably and thoroughly as I could.
One not-so-nineteenth-century aspect of the novel is your deep exploration of Alma's sexuality. But what's interesting there is that so little of her sex life is acted out; so much of it is inside her head. What is your understanding of Alma as a sexual being?
It was really important to me that Alma be an earthy, carnal, and passionate woman. These sorts of sensual urges just seemed a natural expression of her rapacious, insatiable curiosity for life. But because she is trapped in an era when women's desire is seen as abhorrent, and because she is not beautiful or seductive enough to attract male sexual attention, all that yearning has to be sublimated and hidden. Alma is, in fact, never able to experience complete sexual union with another person. Yet she makes something of her energies, anyhow-she turns it all toward her scientific pursuits-and she finds a way to live a full and satisfied life. One of the themes that I wanted to explore in this novel is the truth that women are capable of enduring a tremendous amount of disappointment, and carrying on their lives with dignity nonetheless. Most nineteenth-century novels about women have only one of two endings: either our heroine wins a good husband and we have a happy conclusion, or our heroine is utterly ruined and disgraced (usually on account of a sensual error that destroys her life). But I think the far more accurate reality of women's lives (then as now) is that most women don't necessarily get everything they desire in their romantic relationships, and yet most women find ways to live noble and meaningful lives nonetheless. Alma is neither entirely gratified by life nor entirely ruined by it; she merely does what many women eventually do-she absorbs her heartaches and disappointments, turns her energies elsewhere, and marches forward with her life regardless.
Alma's life is simultaneously tremendously full and despairingly empty. One of the book's many triumphs is its depiction of Alma's loneliness. She just doesn't meet many people who can follow her to the amazing places that her mind takes her. Do you think that a kind of loneliness is the fate of every exceptional intellect?
I don't know if isolation is a universal fate for all exceptional people, but the circumstances of Alma's life certainly made her susceptible to loneliness. She is different from everyone else. She is richer than everyone else. She is more brilliant than everyone else. She is decidedly not the female paragon of the times-neither dainty, or coy, nor submissive, nor flirtatious. (I think of Alma as a tree among flowers, when you compare her to the other girls of early nineteenth-century Philadelphia.) Her towering stature-both physically and intellectually-brings her solitude, but also provides her with a kind of loftiness that I don't think is entirely a curse. A flirty social butterfly could never have traveled alone on whaling ships filled with rough sailors, for instance, but Alma can. It is also that loftiness that helps her to cultivate her mind to such an extensive degree. In fact, there are moments in the book when we see her longing for even MORE privacy, in which to work on her theories uninterrupted. (As a writer, I can relate!) I think what ultimately saves Alma from despair is the love of her work, the sense of her purpose. In the end, I see her as a bride of science itself. This is not an insignificant union. She doesn't pity her fate . . . nor do I. I admire it.
Alma's great nonsexual passion is for botany. You yourself were raised on a tree farm. Like Alma, you had a childhood with few neighbors and a lot of books. What other similarities between you and Alma might it benefit readers to know about?
A dear friend who read the novel early on said, "It's so interesting to see bits of your DNA woven into Alma's character, and then transformed and exaggerated." This comment surprised me, because I honestly hadn't seen the resemblance! Then I thought, well, let's see . . . I also had a charismatic and somewhat self-absorbed father, quite gifted with trees, whom I absolutely adored. I also had a pragmatic and efficient mother whom I loved and respected, and who (like Beatrix and Hanneke, both) taught me the gift of discipline and never permitted me to wallow in my sorrows. (Though my mother is infinitely more affectionate than Beatrix.) I also had, from earliest childhood, an instinctive thrill of learning, and was always exploding with curiosity. I also grew up without friends and neighbors nearby, in the isolated bubble of my parents' farm. As an adolescent, I was also tall and ungainly, and I longed for male attention that I could never hope to receive. And as an adult, I have also sought (and found) deep refuge and satisfaction in my work-especially at times when my personal life may have disappointed or hurt me. This last bit is really what Alma and I most share in common. The name Alma itself means "soul," and in this regard (her lifelong passion for her work) Alma is indeed my soul.
In the "Three Fast Friends"-Alma, Prudence, and Retta-you present a trio of characters who seem to have little in common but who mesh into a delightful unit. Did you see them as representing different parts of a single personality, intellect, morality, and impulse, each in need of the other two to achieve stability and balance?
What a lovely notion! I hadn't thought it through quite so clearly, but this idea makes perfect sense. As I was writing about their friendship, I thought of them more as girls who were accidentally thrown together by fate, timing, and proximity-who shared little in common except their loneliness and their need for companionship. None of them is quite normal, yet somehow, for a brief moment in youth, they are able to normalize and stabilize each other. I thought of their friendship as a chemical equation almost more than an emotional one.
For each of the friends, marriage turns out to be, to one degree or another, a catastrophe. You have reflected a great deal about marriage in your other writings, especially in the memoir Committed. What do you think your characters' errors might teach us about the rather tricky business of matrimony?
I think, to be honest, the depiction of their marriages is a bit more realistic and accurate than the model that most romantic novels would have us believe! I didn't intentionally set out to make these women suffer, but I wanted to show what would really and truly have happened in these mismatched unions. None of their husbands are bad men (in fact, there is not a villain of any kind in the entire novel), but they are simply not the right fit. We all know that this can happen. Poor Retta Snow is the only one who is really undone by matrimony (though I suspect her mind would have unraveled over time anyhow, no matter whom she had married). Prudence and Alma both survive their marriages with dignity. As their mother teaches them early on, dignity is the only thing that matters, and time will reveal who has it. I feel proud that, by the end of the novel, they both have earned their dignified lives.
Your novel looks at nature in search of something like divinity. Your observation that moss "is a resurrection engine" typifies this quest (p. 169). Can we find God in the physical world?
Well, people sure used to think so. Up until the middle of the nineteenth century, men of science were all believers. Most of the great early English naturalists were also ministers; they were the only ones who had education and leisure for such pursuits. Darwin himself almost became a minister. God's power was always thought to be most easily and obviously revealed in the majestic works of nature. (I think we still instinctively feel that sense of awe and humility when we are faced by nature's wonders.) The problem came when the scientific evidence began to contradict the biblical record. We must never forget how painful this schism was-and remains-to the deeply devout. As early as 1850, you start to see people having to choose sides, and this choosing seemed to tear something vital out of everyone. Now we live in a world full of scientists who live without divinity, and believers who live without science. I feel something has been lost here-reverence on one side, rationality on the other. I hope my book speaks to that loss. And I love giving the last chapters of my novel to Alfred Russel Wallace, who was a great evolutionary scientist, as well as a believer in the notion that there exists in the universe some "supreme intelligence" who calls to us and longs for communion with us. Wallace saw no inherent contradiction in these two ideas, and he died a happy man.
Alma and Ambrose search for the idea that lends its name to your novel: "the signature of all things." We took this phrase to mean some kind of unifying principle that connects and explains all phenomena, both physical and metaphysical. We suspect that a lot of people are still trying to find this signature, either in their lives or in the world at large. Should they keep looking?
As long as we live and breathe.