More than, and exactly, a signature

SOAT elizabeth gilbert

If Eat, Pray, Love was your introduction to Elizabeth Gilbert (as it was mine), you could never have known just how capable she is as a writer of producing the work of magnificence that is Signature of All Things. I came to Signature by mistake because a friend recommended I read The Last American Man and because I trust his judgement (and even though I had also read Committed) I went looking for it, and couldn’t find it. But her latest, a novel, was on the shelves. I’m a sucker for the 19th century, for explorations and botanical drawings and for the secret lives of women, so I bought it. (For a quick synopsis see here. And if like me you didn’t know her pre-history to EPL then see this site.)

It’s completely fantastic on several levels: the central character Alma is a magnetic force, but then so are the others: her father, her mother, her adopted sister, her housekeeper, her husband, his lover, etc. Each one absolutely distinctive and real. The story is huge and long and absorbing (it covers about a hundred years of life – before Alma and all through Alma’s life) and ranges wide. The botany (and the “polite botany” — ie women’s science) is credible and fascinating, and there are drawings of specific plants which hold the plot. The sense of the 19th century is dazzling – both the science and the superstition tightly parcelled together; the driving engine of empire and commerce ranging across the planet and the close little lives of women, and the mangled lives of those who fed the machine.

But more than that every sentence is beautiful. And the reading is rich and wonderful and filled with flavour. We also get a 19th century author at points who interrupts her narrative to tell us in a voice both wry and amused – I loved these interjections which reminded just who was wielding the pen and working the plot. The book is a written Byzantine Cathedral (a term I borrow from my once colleague Cathy Knox who used it as a expression of frustration with my interest in convoluted and complex things).

At the finish of the book I was full of questions: how do you manage to do this degree of intensely detailed research? How do you hold all these components in one work and give them all their due? How do you manage the tone and voice so that it fits so well with the subject matter. How do you inject yourself into the past in such a credible way? How do you write characters with such dimensions? How do you make each sentence writerly and pleasurable?

So it was useful to see that Gilbert had given an interview in which she answered some of these questions:

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.

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.

The explanation of the  “signature” of the title comes way into the book and you have to wait for a considerable time to be enlightened (usefully in terms of plot). It’s a reference to a mystical man of science in the 1500s Jacob Boehme who firmly believed that everything that was discovered about the natural world would reveal God himself and the meaning of everything within each part — a kind of code to be discovered in everything, the signature.

This book is a lovely, complex unfolding of a signature, which while it emulates 19th century complexity, is really very 21st century in sensibility. I don’t think I’ll do the reading of the book much harm if I reproduce some of the final lines here:

Alma pressed her face against the tree, and marvelled at it all — at the speed of things, at the amazing confluences. 
     A person cannot marvel in dumbstruck amazement forever, though. and after a while Alma found herself wondering what tree this was, exactly. She was familiar with every tree in the Hortus, but she had lost track of where she was standing, and so she did not remember. It smelled familiar. She stroked its bark, and then she knew — of course. it was the shellbark hickory, the only one of its kind in all of Amsterdam. Juglandaceae. The walnut family. This particular specimen had come from American well over one hundred years earlier, probably from western Pennsylvania. Difficult to transplant, because of its long taproot. Must have come as a tiny sapling. A bottomland grower, it was. Fond of loam and silt; friend to quail and fox; resistant to ice; susceptible to rot. It was old. She was old.
     Lines of evidence were converging upon Alma — lines from every direction — driving her toward her final, formidable conclusion: soon, exceedingly soon, her time would come. She knew this to be true. Maybe not tonight, but some time soon. She was not afraid of death, in theory. If anything, she had nothing but respect and reverence for the Genius of Death, who had shaped this world more than any other force. That said, she did not wish to die quite this moment. She still wanted to see what would happen next, as much as ever. The thing was to resist submersion for as long as possible.
     She clutched the great tree as if it were a horse. She pressed her cheek against its silent, living flank.
     She said, “You and I are very far from home, aren’t we?”
     In the dark gardens, in the middle of the quiet city night, the tree did not reply.
     But it did hold her up just a little while longer.

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