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Elizabeth Gilbert is known for her memoirs “Eat, Pray, Love” and “Committed.” But she dives into the world of late 18th and 19th century science to write her first novel in 13 years, “The Signature of All Things.”
The book tells the story of the Whittakers: Henry, the self-made Philadelphia magnate who amasses a fortune by trading botanicals, and his daughter Alma, a brilliant scientist who makes a lifelong career of studying mosses.
But the novel also brings the reader into the world of botanical exploration, which, as Elizabeth Gilbert tells Here & Now, she found tremendously exciting.
“People were making their name and their fame at it, they were undercutting each other, they were selling out their countries. It was a really exciting time.”
By Elizabeth Gilbert
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 onnozel, 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 which 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 on 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.
From THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS by Elizabeth Gilbert. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Elizabeth Gilbert, 2013.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
How do you follow up a monster publishing success that results in Julia Roberts playing you in a film? Well, if you're Elizabeth Gilbert, author of "Eat, Pray, Love," you write an intensely researched, beautiful novel that spans the 18th and 19th centuries, takes us from London to Peru, Philadelphia to Tahiti. We meet sailors, botanists who travel with them to find lifesaving plants. We meet abolitionists and spiritualists, all intersecting as ideas about science, religion, race and class collide.
Elizabeth Gilbert's first novel in 13 years is "The Signature of all Things." In it, she introduces us to the Whittaker family of Pennsylvania: patriarch Henry, who scrounges his way from thief and deckhand and amasses a fortune importing and selling botanicals - particularly quinine used to treat malaria. His daughter Alma, born in 1800, develops her own scientific passion when she looks at moss through a magnifying glass.
ELIZABETH GILBERT: (Reading) Now the miniature forest below her gaze sprang 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. She rode her eye above the surprising landscape, following its paths in every direction. Here where rich, abundant valleys filled with tiny trees of braided mermaid hair and miniscule, tangled vines. Here where barely visible tributaries running through that jungle. And here was a miniature ocean in a depression in the center of the boulder where all the water pooled.
YOUNG: Elizabeth Gilbert, reading from her new book, "The Signature of All Things." And she joins us from the NPR Studios in New York. Welcome.
GILBERT: Thank you.
YOUNG: Oh, what a read.
YOUNG: It's like a big meal. And you take us through so much. We learn about scientists, and what to do when a child swallows a pin even makes its way in. How did you come to this, and what research did you do to flush it out?
GILBERT: Well, it started because I decided I wanted to write as a form of celebration. I wanted to write the biggest and most sweeping novel that I could.
GILBERT: So it started with that dream. And I had recently become a gardener, so I knew that whatever I was going to write next had to be about plants, or else it wouldn't hold my own attention. And then I came upon this copy of Captain Cook's voyages from 1784 that had belonged to my great-grandfather. And I started reading it, and discovered this idea of botanical exploration, that there was this moment between the end of the Age of Enlightenment and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution that was really the action-adventure of the botany world. And it was so fascinating and so rich, that I decided to set the novel there.
YOUNG: This is a time when ships went around the world, hundreds of plants were discovered, botanists taking the sailing risks right alongside the sailors.
GILBERT: Yeah. People were making their name and their fame at it. They were undercutting each other. They were selling out their countries. It was a really exciting time.
YOUNG: Well, and Henry's at the center of it, your character. We first meet him - he's the son of an orchardman in England's famed Kew Gardens. You describe it as a botanical Noah's Ark because of the thousands of specimens that are there. He steals some of them. But rather than being sent to prison, he's sent to sea. And there, we go into that world, where he's collecting plants. And he makes his fortune and arrives in Philadelphia because of quinine.
The whole time I'm reading, I'm thinking: I wonder if there really was someone who made their fortune and settled in Philadelphia selling quinine. Was there?
GILBERT: Not really. But it's plausible. I spoke to a lot of botanical historians and laid out my theory for how Henry could have risen in the world and become the first millionaire in Philadelphia in the pharmaceutical trade. And quinine did seem to be a plausible way that he could have done it. And I thought there was something very exciting about sending a young, uneducated British boy down to Peru to break this Spanish monopoly on the quinine trade. So the quinine trade was certainly happening in that world, but there was no one figure quite like him.
YOUNG: As opposed to Alma, his daughter, who, it seems, is based on the 20th century moss researcher Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer. You thank her in your acknowledgements.
GILBERT: She's based on her - she's based on a lot of people, almost sort of an amalgam of female botanists over the last three centuries, really. Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, who is my - she's my moss godmother, who guided me in this book and reassured me that the science was correct and that I was on the right track. She's only the most recent.
Alma is also sort of modeled loosely on a number of what were called polite botanists, which is what female botanists were called back in the day, to distinguish them from botanists, which were men. The work was exactly the same, but the men were threatened by their existence, and so they gave them this name of polite botanists, as if it were just a hobby.
But there were a lot of them. Botany was the only science that was really open to women. They sort of snuck into that science through the garden gate and made some remarkable contributions.
YOUNG: Tell us more about this woman, in particular, Alma: not at all attractive, in fact, thought of as ugly in some corners. But she discovers some writing about sexuality, and we know these books existed. So, by the way, did you research them?
GILBERT: That was probably the most fun research that I had to do, was reading about Enlightenment-era pornography and pre-Victorian pornography, which was rampant, and there's still some wonderful examples of it. And I had ball inventing the book that she discovers.
Alma is put in charge of her parent's incredible library. Her father's not a great reader, but he collects books in an almost talismanic way. And she comes upon some very naughty writing, and it stirs in her a lust and a sort of exploration of her own body that ends up being a theme in her life for the rest of her life.
And I knew from the beginning I wanted to write a female character who was very carnal and very sensual. But I didn't want that to be telegraphed in her looks. You know how in most novels, the sexual woman always sort of looks like Jessica Rabbit?
GILBERT: You know, like, she always has, like, heaving breasts and flashing eyes and dangerous beauty. But we know that that's not really the reality, that sexuality is a locked door that can show up in any form, you know. And I wanted to unleash it in a woman who the world did not see as beautiful.
YOUNG: Well, and you give the Jessica Rabbit body and beautiful face to Alma's sister, who becomes a very serious abolitionist. And also, into Alma's life, you bring Ambrose. Just very briefly, this is the man who - it's a thin line between whether he's mentally ill or so taken with the spiritualist movement of the time, that he thought he could actually become an angel on Earth. Is that true, that there were those people?
GILBERT: Yeah. And I think, you know, the people who are very mystical now and then, you know, they are kind of visitors here, you know? They do sort of have one foot elsewhere. And that's what makes them so attractive and appealing, but also makes them fragile and dangerous. And I've known people like that, and they're very attractive. And Alma does the thing that we do the first time we meet somebody like that. She fell in love with him, you know? And the results were - well, I don't want to give away anything. But the results were interesting.
YOUNG: Well, and we've only gotten through maybe a quarter of the book, and we don't want to give away what happens when everyone packs off for Tahiti. You know, just an amazing trail you take us on. How long were you immersed in this world, and how hard was it to kind of come up out of it?
GILBERT: It wasn't fun to come up out of it, because I loved being in it so much. And I spent about three-and-a-half years doing research for this book. And for that, I have only "Eat, Pray, Love" to thank, because it financed this book. And I knew that I was in this very rare position that very few writers get to be in, and glancingly few women writers ever get to be in, which is somebody who can choose her own projects and fund her own projects.
YOUNG: Oh, it's just occurring to me. Like Alma, in some ways, couldn't. You know, in other words, yeah, you had the freedom - she had a lot more freedom than a lot of women in that day, but you have even more.
GILBERT: Yeah. And I was aware of that as I was writing her story, but I was also aware of the ages of women writers who weren't able to - as I was able to - jump on a plane and go to Tahiti for three weeks and talk to people who are experts in missionary life there and, you know, the sorts of freedoms that my position has now afforded me. And I felt like the only way to honor that was to write the kind of book that men have always written, you know, like write the big, rolling, sweeping epic, the big novel of ideas and a big novel of the world. That's the only way to honor how lucky I am to be where I am right now.
YOUNG: That's Elizabeth Gilbert. Her big novel of 19th century botany exploration and so much more is called "The Signature of All Things." Elizabeth Gilbert, thanks so much for talking to us.
GILBERT: My very great pleasure. Thanks for having me, Robin.
YOUNG: And, Meghna, the book is getting rave reviews. I just have two words for you...
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
YOUNG: ...pistils and stamens. Oh, my God. It's such a sexy book.
YOUNG: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.
CHAKRABARTI: I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.