Monday, February 3, 2014

Reading in 2014 - The Signature of All Things

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things'5th January 1800. Alma Whittaker is born into a perfect Philadelphia winter. Her father, Henry Whittaker, is a bold and charismatic botanical explorer whose vast fortune belies his lowly beginnings as a vagrant in Sir Joseph Banks' Kew Gardens and as a deck hand on Captain Cook's HMS Resolution. Alma’s mother, a strict woman from an esteemed Dutch family, is conversant in five living languages (and two dead ones). An independent girl with a thirst for knowledge, it is not long before Alma comes into her own within the world of botany. But as Alma’s careful studies of moss take her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, the man she comes to love draws her in the opposite direction.
The Signature of All Things is a big novel, about a big century. It soars across the globe from London to Tasmania, to Philadelphia, to Tahiti, to Amsterdam. Peopled with extraordinary characters – missionaries, abolitionists, adventurers, astronomers, sea captains, geniuses and the quite mad – most of all it has an unforgettable heroine in Alma Whittaker, a woman of the Enlightened Age who stands defiantly on the cusp of the modern.'

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you know much about the life and work of Charles Darwin you will recognise the echoes in the story of Alma. The seemingly aimless and self-absorbed years of study of moss, the moment of insanity that gelled the millions of observations together into a hypothesis and then the years of focused study to gather the specific evidence to support a theory (that would become known as Evolution),the fear of publication without being sure that the theory was absolutely watertight and the shock at finding that someone else had reached the same conclusions. All this mirrors Darwin - Alma studied moss, Darwin looked to barnacles. Much of the first half or two-thirds of the book explores the religious and political barriers to scientific discovery and also to societal change of any kind in the era(this is the story of Prudence). Alma's time in Tahiti is a vehicle for exploring, developing and coming to terms with her own religious philosophy, opening her mind for the discoveries to come. This reflects the journey of the scientific community in general as 'natural philosophers' disappeared and 'scientists' emerged, shedding the reins of the church and embracing discoveries that threatened the social order of the western world.

The story of Henry Whittaker is one that was quite common for the time. An illiterate pauper who is smart enough to make the most of every opportunity, a mind for business and a knack for making connections. He lived in a time where anyone with enough money and enough interest could become an expert in so many different fields. He made himself aware of all the latest advances in technology and science from around the globe. His modern-day equivalent would be Richard Branson. In Henry's youth the world is a small place, one he is able to conquer and control. In adulthood he is a master of all, able to keep pace with the social changes, his finger on the pulse of the business and scientific communities. Henry's decline in old age is the inverse of the world around him and he laments the loss of his mastery and the dizzying rate of change and discovery going on around him. I wonder what he would make of the internet?

At times in the novel it feels like there is too much going on, too many competing stories, too many narratives that aren't explored in enough detail. However that is the reality of the age. The 1800s were an exciting time - a bit like human teenage years - full of exploration, pushing boundaries and testing limits. There are so many side stories that could easily take off and become novels of their own but the key to this book is in the title - The Signature of All Things - the multitude of small discoveries that led to what we now know as the Theory of Evolution. The book is long and twisting and convoluted because that is the story of those discoveries.

I really enjoyed this book and think I would like to re-read it sometime in the future. I've been considering On the Origin of Species for some time but now I have had the push I need to find a copy and fully acquaint myself with Darwin's own words.
If you have never read anything of substance about the work and life of Charles Darwin I highly recommend Darwin and Evolution for Kids: His life and ideas by Kristan Lawson. Despite the title it is not a childish book and it is a fabulous summary of his life, his work, the society of the time and the influences that shaped him. If you read only one book about Darwin then consider this one. It will certainly help you understand the themes of Signature more clearly.

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