Elizabeth Gilbert’s engrossing new novel, The Signature of All Things, is the story of a 19th-century botanist named Alma Whittaker. Janet Maslin noted in her generally positive New York Times review that Alma is the sort of “serious” woman who might “never have read the 19th-century equivalent of Ms. Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. Since she has no interest in fiction, she might sniff at The Signature of All Things, too.” I’m not sure she’s quite right, since the book is a rousing account of female intellectual development, which in many ways is also the subject of Eat, Pray, Love. Gilbert was kind enough to talk to Flavorwire by phone about the book and some of those themes last week. Here’s what she said.
Elizabeth Gilbert: Oh, why not? [laughs] A couple of reasons. One is, I recently moved, or a couple of years ago, I moved to small town in New Jersey and bought a house and kind of settled down after a long time of traveling. And immediately put in a garden much to my surprise. I had grown up on a farm and I had run away from all things rural, but I felt myself pulled back. And once I started gardening I got so excited. I knew whatever I was going to write next was going to be about plants in some way or another. And then I came upon this discovery of a book that had belonged to my great grandfather and had been in my family for a long time called “Captain Cook’s Voyages.” It was a 1784 edition of the complete ship logs of Captain Cook’s three trips around the world. And in there when I started reading through it, I discovered the whole idea of the Age of Enlightenment and the fascination with botanical exploration. Once I, put those things together I knew I would be writing a botany book and that it would be set in that time.
It’s interesting. I saw in some of your other interviews you said that another thing that sort of moved you to write this was Wolf Hall. And I just thought it was funny because, you know, the subject of that book is power and the subject of this book is plants.
What Wolf Hall did was show me how to write the book. I had been doing research already for about a year for this book, but I was still a little bit lost as to how to write a period novel that didn’t sound too period-y, and wouldn’t just be really annoying. And it took me a couple of reads of Wolf Hall to figure out the trick of, that who was writing a contemporary novel set in the past, and that’s kind of what I was trying to do with mine as well. So it kind of cleared up that mystery for me.
I wonder what drew you to the historical, in the sense that up until now in your fiction and nonfiction you’ve been pretty obsessed with the contemporary? [Pause] I mean, let’s put in that way…
[Laughs.] Fair enough. I don’t know. I think I wanted to entertain myself and try something new. I think I also wanted to… you know, it’s weird. I am obsessed with the contemporary as a writer, but as a reader I’m obsessed with the historical. All my favorite books have always been 19t-century books: Dickens, Eliot, Austen and Henry James and to a certain extent Edith Wharton.
What I love about that period is the narrator who is not only omniscient but incredibly self assured. Which I guess you would be if you were omniscient. Why would you be anything other than self-assured if you an omniscient being? [Laughs.] And I think that that wonderful strong narrator that knows everything and begins the novel with a very firm command of the story can convey to the reader that, “I’m under control here and I know exactly where we’re going, just trust me we’re going to have an incredible adventure.” That’s something that I feel is often missing from contemporary literature and so I think I wanted to try that kind of voice out. And I felt that the best way to do it was in something written from the time that those books come from.
It’s interesting that you say that about the confident narrator, because I was also very struck by the way that Alma is a bit unusual. I read and write a lot about “women’s fiction,” whatever the hell that phrase means, which I don’t know —
I’m glad you’re sorting it out.
… She seemed unusually self-confident is, I guess, the way I would put it, but that does feel like I’m imposing a contemporary frame on her. Do you feel that way about the character?
Well, she’s extremely self-confident, but she’s also modeled upon a certain number of women. She’s not based on any one in particular, but obviously I did a lot of research on 18th- and 19th-century female botanists. There were lots of them because that was the only science open to women, because flowers, you know. It’s almost like women snuck into the science of botany through the garden gate.
I should say just as a historical footnote, until the middle of the 19th century, when there was a movement inside the scientific world to get women out of botany or to rescue botany from women because men were afraid that they weren’t being taken seriously as botanists because so many women were doing it. They kind of got shunted out, but up until then there were some pretty remarkable and very self-assured female voices in that world. If you read a biography of Beatrix Potter, that’s another one, there were these kind of girls who were just incredibly comfortable in the natural world and very ballsy. So physically and emotionally stalwart, when you read their letters and diaries you’re struck by the absence of the “female” in their voice and they’re impatient for that as well. And so I feel as though Alma is not unusual because she’s certainly not implausible; there were others like her.