Elizabeth Gilbert’s recent novel The Signature of All Things (2013) is, among other things, a very easy-to-read guide to the intellectual history of the 19th century, especially that branch of thought in which discoveries about the age of the earth, the extinction of species, and the origins of homo sapiens presented challenges to scripture-based religious orthodoxies and to the stable world of fixed personal and political relationships. It’s in 1833 when scientist is first used, replacing “natural philosopher,” a term suggesting a more abstract, less-laboratory grounded approach to the physical world. The professional life of Alma Whittaker, Gilbert’s fictional scientist heroine, begins at this auspicious moment. Combining discipline, curiosity and creativity, she becomes a self-educated “wizard of bryophitic taxonomy,” that is to say, an expert on mosses. One of her passions is to explain how water algae morph into land mosses. What finches and snails are to Charles Darwin, mosses are to Whittaker. They are the living laboratory that when scrupulously observe provides proof for evolutionary change.
The qualities that enable her scientific prowess are traceable to her father and mother. Henry Whittaker’s story is emblematic of many stories of success in the new world. As a London guttersnipe, he works for and steals from Joseph Banks, the custodian of Kew Gardens, the royal botanical park. With Banks intercession – he knows a striver when he sees one – Henry ships out on James Cook’s third voyage to the new world and the South Pacific. Building on his sizeable understanding of flora, he emigrates to Philadelphia where, though imagination, ambition, and ruthlessness, he builds an empire in the trading of exotic and medicinal plants. He’s a harsh, no-nonsense man who treats traders and family without sentimentality. His wife Beatrix, though more kindly than her husband, is a practical-minded Dutchwoman who comes from a scientific family and encourages her daughter’s ambition and fosters her brilliance.
Despite her precocity and expertise, Alma is stymied, both as female scientist but also as a not-very-marriageable woman. She has not been blessed with fetching good looks, as has her half-sister, the adopted Prudence. Indeed, she is tall, solid and mannish. Jane Austen, whose novels appeared in the decade when Alma is a teen ager (she’s born in 1798 and her life spans the better part of the 19th century), seems to be Gilbert’s guide as she explores the courtship dance and the search for a good husband. Approaching 50, Alma does fall in love and marries. Her spouse is a dreamy botanical illustrator ten years her junior, a man who has spent the better part of the last two decades in Central America. A transcendentalist, despite being unfamiliar with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott, Ambrose believes in the “the signature of all things,” that is, the notion that the divinity reveals himself and his instructions for human kind in nature’s intricate hieroglyphic. The skeptical Alma doesn’t share his belief in the spirit world or in sudden revelations of God’s message, and, as a result, their relationship is strained. But there is a more substantial factor in failure of communion of two souls: he wants a chaste marriage where the libidinous Alma, long having suppressed her sexual vitality, does not.
In Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert’s wildly successful memoir of her own spiritual journey, she moves through the hedonism of food-conscious Italy and the asceticism of an Indian ashram or spiritual retreat, before meeting her second husband, a Brazilian jewelry exporter, in the paradise of Bali. Alma’s trip to Tahiti in search of Ambrose, where he has been sent to solve a problem in orchid propagation, draws on Gilbert’s own South Seas experience, and this part of the book seems to be the weakest and most self-indulgent.
In another recent work about a fictional scientist-anthropologist, Euphoria (2014), Lily King tells a love story that is modeled on the relationship between the American Margaret Mead and the Englishman Gregory Bateson, to whom Mead was married and then divorced. It’s set in Papua New Guinea at a time when this new social science created a rush of anthropologists in search of “uncontaminated” primitive peoples. Mead’s own Coming of Age in Samoa, a work in which she portrayed uninhibited, guilt-free, experimental adolescents contributed to the enthusiasm of field work. Mead has been subsequently criticized for fudging data and romanticizing the Samoan culture. In King’s work, one of the characters repeatedly warns his fellow scientists to refrain from turning “what is” into “what ought to be.”
Though Gilbert hardly portrays Tahiti as a utopia – Alma arrives there after a century or more or Western conquest, Christian evangelization, and population-killing disease – the portrait of the Tahitians as having secret cultural knowledge useful to a Westerner is a feature of this episode in the second half of the novel. Alma has a revelation about natural selection and the competitive struggle when she participates, initially against her will, in a beach free-for-all rugby-like game with the tribal women. Like Sir Isaac Newton who allegedly had an insight into gravity by watching an apple fall from a tree, Alma has her breakthrough when dunked repeatedly in the ocean turf. A quasi-romantic encounter with Tomorrow Morning, a young, charismatic Tahitian male with whom Ambrose was fascinated, seems more like material for a harlequin romance than part of a clear-eyed look a 19th century intellectual woman.
As Alma ages and she accepts her spinsterhood, she throws herself even more aggressively into her work, painstakingly constructing a moss eco-system. Her chief psychological battle is a professional one: when to publish her work that will establish her own variation on Darwin’s theory of natural section. Darwin’s groundbreaking work, which was percolating for almost two decades, was published in 1859 (the application to the human sphere would be published twelve years later). The fictional Alma is like a number of other naturalists who were cautious about releasing the results because of the insufficiency of date or because of the threat that the evidence posed to the literalism of the Bible. In Alma’s case, she is stymied by kinds of behavior that fly in the face of the fierce, remorseless struggle for survival and the perpetuation of one’s own kin. She is perplexed by her sister Prudence who, with her husband George, is an altruistic abolitionist who lives a life of voluntary poverty and adopts African children, apparently to the disadvantage of their personal welfare. Alma observes this kind of selflessness in the animal realm as well; thus; her theory is incomplete and unworthy of circulation.
There’s no hint from Gilbert that this hesitation is a result of her gender or her work in a field dominated by powerful and misogynistic men. This is not a tale of a 19th century overshadowed Rosalind Franklin who despite her important work on DNA is beaten to the finish line by James D. Watson and Francis Crick. Alma’s late-life friendship with the real life Alfred Russel Wallace, a naturalist-geographer-biologist 25 years her junior, provides a helpful insight into the sociology of science and scientist. Wallace who, like the fictional Ambrose, is insistent on the existence of the occult- spiritual realm, has an ideological split with Darwin , and thus, like the fictional Alma, is a footnote to the Darwin saga. Gilbert seems content with the modest Alma’s subordinate role in the great epic of discovery. While Gilbert writes authoritatively about the science – especially the world of mosses – there are sections of the “lives of the scientists” that read too much like Wikipedia entries.
Woven into the tale are some unnecessary parts. Alma’s adolescent friendship with the lively Retta Snow is first strained by Retta’s marriage to the printer who Alma has an affection for, and then challenged when Retta spirals into madness. It’s hard to know if this subplot is there to illustrate variety within the human species or as another nod to a common theme of the 19th century novel that Gilbert tries to imitate: the madwoman in the attic.
Despite side trips down these superfluous tributaries, Gilbert does place us into the current of 19th century life and thought that moves swiftly. The course of Alma’s life from America to Tahiti to Amsterdam, where she finally comes under the guidance of her uncle who directs the Hortus Botanicus, is well-worth following.
Footnote: Although I haven’t read it, Ann Padgett’s State of Wonder (2011) is another novel whose protagonist is a female scientist on an adventure in an exotic location. The pharmaceutical researcher travels to the Amazon in search of her mentor who has disappeared. Should STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) know about and promote these books that offer glimpses of women of science?
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