(Published in the Business Standard, 22nd October, 2013)

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From The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin, 1859: “How have all those exquisite adaptations of one part of the organisation to another part, and to the conditions of life, and of one distinct organic being to another being, been perfected?”

By the time Darwin published the first draft of The Origin of Species, he had spent years studying marine animals, beetles, birds, reptiles and other animals, mould, erratic boulders, coral reefs, barnacles, fossil barnacles and seeds.

He spent 1857 writing chapters of his “species book”; on 18th June 1858, he wrote to his friend Lyell about a paper by Alfred Russel Wallace: “I never saw a more striking coincidence. If Wallace had my M.S. sketch written out in 1842 he could not have made a better short abstract!”

Darwin assumed that he and Wallace would take equal credit for the theory of Natural Selection, observing ruefully, “So all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed.” He insisted that Wallace’s paper be read along with his own unpublished writings at the Linnean society, but despite this act of generosity, it was his work that would define the origin of the species.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s soaring, ambitious novel, The Signature of All Things, takes this familiar episode from Darwin’s life and offers a Shakespeare’s Sister twist: what if Darwin’s competition had been a lady scientist fascinated by moss? Alma Whitaker is born to a strikingly wealthy man who makes his fortune as a botanist, preferring plants over sugar, cotton and slaves. “The baby was neither a boy nor was it pretty”: this will turn out to be most useful for Alma.

The three things a woman needed to be a scientist in the early 19th century was wealth, which would allow her to be eccentric enough to follow a pursuit more appropriate for men; a lack of family responsibilities—Alma is too plain and too intelligent to be suitable for marriage; and a male pseudonym, under which she publishes her papers on botany.

Gilbert captures the enthusiasm of the botanists and geologists of the time, who held the keys to the universe in their hands. But The Signature of All Things is only set in the past; its tone is, like Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, confidently contemporary, and that makes the novel a magnificent if occasionally uneven achievement.

Liz Gilbert attracts vocal critics, especially those who sneer at her wildly successful 2006 memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. She writes touchy-feely schmaltz, she markets herself, she is annoyingly successful: the list goes on. But the three books Gilbert wrote before Eat, Pray, Love, were all uncompromisingly intelligent books. Pilgrims, Stern Men and The Last American Man lay aslant from the mainstream, gathered awards, and displayed Gilbert’s untiring capacity for research–bartending for the Coyote Ugly essay, Maine lobster fishing for Stern Men.

Many readers were disturbed when they learned that Gilbert had planned the three parts of the journey that became Eat, Pray, Love, if not perhaps the happy marriage that closed the book. But planning has a great deal more to do with good literature than serendipity. What disturbed me about Eat, Pray, Love was that Gilbert tried so hard to hide her brains, behind that breathlessly personal style. Here, she’s free to be a bluestocking, with excellent results.

Her love of language runs through the book, as in this sentence about Alma’s father learning “… the tricks of budding, booting, clefting, planting and pruning with a judicious hand”. Henry’s wealth, his extensive greenhouses, and the vigorous, combative conversation at his well-laden tables, allows Alma and her adopted sister, Prudence, a rare independence.

Alma discovers old books, and through one—Cum Grano Salis—the solitary pleasures of the flesh. She has two rooms of her own: the binding closet where she deals in privacy with the urgent desires of her body, the large carriage house where she sets up a herbarium, her botanist’s dictionaries. “One room was for the body; one was for the mind. But both rooms belonged to Alma Whitaker alone, and in both rooms she came into being.”

If the inner lives of women are one of Gilbert’s preoccupations, botany is the other great connecting thread: “Alma knelt in the tall grass and brought her face as near as she could to the stone. And there, rising no more than an inch above the surface of the boulder, she saw a great and tiny forest… This was a stupefying kingdom. This was the Amazon jungle as seen from the back of a harpy eagle. This was the entire world.”

This is the world that will draw her in; perhaps Gilbert’s most startling achievement is to make readers feel that they’re reading a novel based on a real, not fictional, woman botanist. In my imagination, Alma Whitaker does write The Complete Mosses of North America; she has (in one of the few dud passages) a Noble Savage romance in Tahiti; she reads Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology in the 1830s. Alma Whitaker inspires the strangest of emotions: is it possible to envy a fictional character for living in Darwin’s time?

“I have never felt the need to invent a world beyond this world, for this world has always seemed large and beautiful enough for me.” The world Gilbert creates in The Signature of All Things is a capacious universe: this is a great read for those who like their fiction to feature strong women characters, but it is also great fiction about science, and about the wonder of discovery.