This is a book review of Elizabeth Gilbert’s “The Signature of All Things”. There are many spoilers herein. so if you care about that kind of thing, stop reading early on. If you’ve read this book, do let me know what your impressions were.
Botany for economic gain, natural curiosity, and artisanal botany popular in the era are explored.
“The Signature of All Things” is the story of the 19th century natural science revolution (this era was as much natural as Industrial Revolution & the book tracks both). The book particularly tracks the growth of the global plant trade, colonialism & other societal issues we still grapple with today. The science of botany is seen largely through the eyes of bryologist Alma Whitaker. Botany for economic gain, natural curiosity, and artisanal botany popular in the era are explored. It is a work of historical fiction, sticking closely to historical events, at least on the surface. This story could have actually happened while keeping known history intact. Real historical figures appear and interact with the characters in the book. The main three are founder of Kew Gardens Joseph Banks, explorer Captain James Cook, and naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace.
The book largely follows Alma Whitaker, the daughter of a wealthy botanist. Her mother belongs to the family that owns The Hortus, a major botanical garden in Amsterdam and her father grew up poor in the shadow of Kew Gardens where he started a black market business in rare plants, stealing them from the royal gardens.
It’s the ideal of what a university for a one person might be, complete with pitfalls of solely pursuing academic knowledge at the expense of everything else in life.
The first portion of the book relates Henry Whitaker’s rise to wealth selling botanicals (starting with the medicinal Cinchona tree that can treat malaria) and developing a large worldwide business based on plant products of all kinds. The estate he builds, the center of his empire, is White Acre, in Philadelphia. Alma grows up on the palatial estate with access to rare plants grown in glass houses (a real innovation of the time), an extensive library, and access to the brightest minds of the day that visit White Acre regularly. It’s the ideal of what a university for a one person might be, complete with pitfalls of solely pursuing academic knowledge at the expense of everything else in life.
The bulk of the book then focuses on Alma Whitaker from a big party in 1808 when Alma is 8 years old through to her old age in the 1880’s. Much of Alma’s life is spent studying mosses; an area of botany that she determines is neglected and where she could make an impact in the research world. Which she does. Along with helping her father run the family business, largely isolated and not really having any friends to speak of in adulthood. And most of the time, she doesn’t leave White Acre or Philadelphia. The world comes to her. Until some events occur, throwing Alma’s sheltered perception of her world on their end.
An exceptionally skilled orchid artist named Ambrose Pike comes to White Acre after being in Mexico documenting the myriad orchids that live there. Alma is truly taken with him and ends up marrying him briefly until she realizes they’re not truly compatible and that he believes he is an angel sent from heaven, which clashes with Alma’s rational view of the world (not to mention some miscues about bedroom behavior– with Ambrose being uncomfortable with Alma’s desire). Ambrose gets sent away, to Tahiti to help establish a vanilla plantation there (complete with discussion of how to solve the missing pollinator problem when the orchid is taken away from its normal habitat). To this day, a majority of vanilla is pollinated by hand. An envoy for the Whitaker company brings back news that Ambrose has passed away along with some scandalous and mysterious drawings that he made. The next big event is the death of Alma’s father who encourages her to “Go find out yourself!”.
This spurs the final section of the book where Alma divests herself of her fortune, giving the estate to her foster-sister Prudence, an abolitionist, to start a school for African Americans. Throughout, the book runs through most of the social issues of the day, including how the mentally ill were dealt with, globalized trade/colonialism, and slavery, though nearly always in passing. The reader is aware of historical significance, the characters aren’t. It’s just Alma’s world and her view of it. Even for a well-off person, traveling the world is rough. Ocean travel on a wooden whaling ship is not for the faint of heart.
Alma sees a lot of the world on the way to Tahiti and sees many surreal things to her eyes. In Tahiti, after a lifetime of studying mosses and being sheltered in Philadelphia, she reaches Tahiti, a wholly different place. Alma has a revelation after playing a game with native Tahitians in the shallows and nearly drowning, Alma has a revelation about life on Earth. Namely that life is a competition, that competition can drive change of living things and communities of time. Alma hit upon the theory of natural selection too and to maintain the real historical record, it had to be lost to history by the end of the story.
She refines her version on the way to Amsterdam and The Hortus, where her mother’s family is. She presents her theory to her uncle who thinks it brilliant, but Alma isn’t satisfied because the theory isn’t complete; she wants to figure out the ‘Prudence Problem’, namely altruism. Prudence dedicated her life to abolition; doing something for others for no apparent gain to oneself. I am sure that this was an objection to natural selection when it was first proposed. Even to this day it may not be fully accounted for in every case.
We’re just as dependent on and trying to solve the problems introduced by the global plant trade discussed in the book, and so it might be a good introduction to the history that underpins our modern world.
She does not publish for this reason. And she sees Darwin and Wallace publish their papers on it (noting that nothing it never occurred to her to publish an incomplete theory as Darwin and Russell did– as most scientists do). She does meet Alfred Russell Wallace and shows him her treatise on the subject and he acknowledges she came up with the theory too; there were three of them. And then the treatise gets placed in the corner of her study, Alma in her 80’s, having set up a popular moss exhibit and continued her studies into mosses at The Hortus. This is the tail end of the book.
The book does well talking about the process of science and discovery
I wish I liked this book more & it could be I just didn’t find Alma all that compelling a character. I haven’t read ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, but this struck me as a similar tale in a lot of ways. A woman circumnavigating the globe, experiencing life after a long time cooped up in one place– and more power to her. The book does well talking about the process of science and discovery, though I am not sure I find it credible that Alma would not publish her incomplete theory, despite being a perfectionist as the book notes repeatedly. It could be that my familiarity with science and the scientific method that also took away from the story for me. It’s a story I know well.
I could see using “The Signature of All Things” in a class on The History of Science, or in an introductory biology class as a supplement to learning about the natural world. It is a useful book for getting a glimpse at the world that lay the foundation for our modern one. Warts and all. We’re just as dependent on and trying to solve the problems introduced by the global plant trade discussed in the book, and so it might be a good introduction to the history that underpins our modern world.
What did you think of “The Signature of All Things”?