Alma Whittaker, is born on the 5th of January 1800 to Henry, a botanist and Beatrix, conversant in seven languages and an expert in botany too. Being a woman, however, Beatrix uses her talents to run the household while Henry is the ‘public face’ of his business.
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 that 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.
The first section of the book acquaints us with the story of Henry’s youth, how he made his fortune and how he came to marry a Dutch woman most definitely his equal. It’s very entertaining.
The focus then moves to Alma.
She wanted to understand the world, and made a habit of chasing down information to its last hiding place, as though the fate of nations were at stake in every instance…
Alma had been born to the correct parents for these sort of restless inquiries; as long as her questions were respectfully expressed, they would be answered.
As a result, Alma grows up a clever girl and is allowed to sit next to her father at the dinner table from her being four years of age. This is a privilege as the Whittakers often invite philosophers, scientists, inventors, translators and actresses to dine with them. ‘She was allowed to ask questions, so long as her questions were not imbecilic.’
Two other females come to share in Alma’s life. One arrives in childhood and the other in early adulthood. The first is Prudence, the daughter of the head gardener on her father’s estate. The gardener murders his wife, seemingly after she’s cuckolded him one time too many, and then hangs himself. The Whittakers take Prudence in as their own.
Prudence’s arrival changed everything at White Acre. Later in life, when Alma was a woman of science, she would better understand how the introduction of any new element into a controlled environment will alter that environment in manifold and unpredictable ways, but as a child, all she sensed was a hostile invasion and a premonition of doom. Alma did not embrace her interloper with a warm heart.
The second is Retta Snow who Alma finds wandering in the garden at White Acre after Retta’s family mov into the new estate two miles down the river. Retta helps the sisters communicate in a way they are unable to without her presence.
Life moves on and while Prudence and Retta marry, Alma stays at home carrying out scientific studies and – after discovering a book titled Cum Grano Salis, an account of one man’s lifetime of erotic adventures – exploring her own body. Alma is lucky enough to not just have a room of her own, but to have two contrasting rooms.
While the rest of White Acre flowed along in its customary activity and combat, these two locations – the binding closet and the carriage house study – became for Alma twin points of privacy and revelation. One room was for the body; one was for the mind. One room was small and windowless; the other airy and cheerfully lit.One room smelled of old glue; the other fresh hay. One room brought forth secret thoughts; the other brought forth ideas that could be published and shared. The two rooms existed in separate buildings, divided by lawns and gardens, bisected by a wide gravel drive. Nobody would ever have seen their correlation.
But both rooms belonged to Alma Whittaker alone, and in both rooms, she came into being.
But shortly after, tragedy strikes when Beatrix dies unexpectedly. On her deathbed, Beatrix makes Alma promise she will never leave her father and with that, her dream of being an eminent scientist dies.
It’s far from the end of the story, however, but I’m not going to spoil it by telling you what comes next.
The Signature of All Things has much I loved: Gilbert uses the three women – Alma, Prudence and Retta – to explore three different potential outcomes for women at that time; Alma’s a fabulous character who refuses to allow the life she’s ended up with to conquer her; there are several key themes explored which highlight the inequality of the time – women’s rights, racism, homosexuality, missionaries; her father Henry’s story is hugely entertaining, and the ending, where Gilbert allows a significant real scientific finding to converge with Alma’s fictional, one is superb.
However, the novel was just too long for me – I felt it sagged in the middle – and had I not been reading it as part of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize longlist, I just might have given up on it. I’m glad I didn’t because, as I said, the ending was superb, but I felt like I’d slogged through a couple of sections to get there.
Overall, this is worth reading, it’s a work of feminist literary fiction with a formidable woman at its forefront.
I enjoyed it, though felt it did have flaws as well, it was passed to me by someone who absolutely loved it, so I was naturally predisposed to enjoying it, though interestingly the things that raised questions for me were not even on her radar, I find that so interesting how differently we perceive certain aspects. I think this was an ambitious book and yet there was much more I wished she had explored.
I’ve just read your review and I completely agree about Prudence, I thought she was a fascinating character.
I’ve thought about this book for a while – I finished reading it three weeks ago – but I can’t decide how the flaws would best have been dealt with; if it had focused on fewer years, there could’ve been greater exploration of other characters but then it would’ve lost some of the things that were so interesting about Alma’s life. Perhaps Gilbert should’ve gone full Victorian and made it a three-parter!
It sounds worth a read, despite it’s length. I will add it to my list! Thanks.
Hope you enjoy it.
I was offered a review copy and politely declined, because I think what they offered me has nothing to do with what you are reviewing: I want to read the book you talk about here! I love that you call it “feminist” 🙂
Isn’t that interesting? I think we pick up on different angles determined on our own interests. I remember reading the blurb of this and thinking I wasn’t really bothered but it was much better than that.
I was keen to read the this as the previous book of the author had totally got me hooked… and I was a little nervous.. as generally when we expect a lot.. things do not get matched to the levels. Now having read the book… I can very gladly say that I found it equally amazing… The characters in the book are strong, especially if I talk about the lead, Alma, I found her awsome.. Her feelings, thoughts. actions have been very beautifully described and aomewhere somehow happen to relate to every gal reading the book. From materialistic description, thirst for knowlwdge to spiritual insight… everything flows like a beautiful infact indispensable sequence thereby truly signing for all things
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