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.