Elizabeth Gilbert (Photo: Other)
Best-known recently for her nonfiction work on self-discovery and marriage, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the best-selling memoir "Eat Pray Love", returns to fiction with a new novel, "The Signature of All Things."
Written 13 years after her last novel, the book follows Alma Whittaker, a brilliant 19th century botanist who lives a privileged but isolated life on a large estate. After her father's death, she relinquishes that world and travels the globe.
Reuters spoke to Gilbert about botany, the novel's title, and feminism.
Q: Why did you choose to focus on botany, in particular mosses, as Whittaker's main passion?
A: Botany was the only science into which women were even slightly welcomed. I wanted to write about a 19th century female scientist, and botany was an accessible world because plants and flowers were considered a feminized realm.
Women snuck into botany through the garden gates and, once there, they made remarkable contributions in relation to other fields. It was still a modest number of women doing this work but a great deal more than the number of female chemists.
I then needed to find something plausible for Alma to study that could address the following: could a woman with the right education and right access to the right ideas come up with the same ideas that the great men of that era were developing?
Alma spends most of her life at her father's Philadelphia estate in a life every bit as restrictive as that of most women during that time. She cannot go to the Galapagos or the Amazon but can she find the same information within walking distance of her own home? I needed to find a subject that was plentiful, underfoot and nearby. Mosses fit that criteria.
Q: Which influences did you draw upon to construct Alma Whittaker's character?
A: She is not based on any one particular woman. I read about all the great 19th century lady botanists and drew on various pieces of their biographies.
Alma's scholarship was inspired by Elizabeth Gertrude Britton, who served as the actual curator of mosses at the New York Botanical Garden.
Alma's younger life is partially based on Beatrix Potter, who is well-known for children's books. As a teenager, Potter was an incredibly avid naturalist with a strong interest in mushroom and fungi. She made beautiful illustrations and spent her whole childhood out in the fields as an explorer and collector.
Alma's travels and postmenopausal life comes from Marianne North, who was a spinster and the daughter of a prominent English scientist. When her father died, she inherited a considerable amount of money. After living a very sheltered life in which she was her father's secretary, she then saw the world and made incredible botanical illustrations. Those works now displayed in a gallery at (London's) Kew Gardens.
Q: How did you come upon (German mystic and theologian) Jacob Boehme's "The Signature of All Things: With Other Writings"?
A: Very early on in my botanical history reading, I encountered Boehme, who was one of the early taxonomists. He tried to put the natural world into order. "The Signature of All Things" is an interesting moment of historical intersection between the end of medieval superstition and beginning of the scientific way of looking at plants and animals.
He believed that God had hidden, in the design of all plants, secrets as to the use of those plants for human beings. I just got so excited by his ideas and the poetry of the title of his theory. It's such a beautiful combination of words.
Q: Why does Alma ultimately refuse to publish her treatise?
A: I did not want to mess with actual history too much. It is important when you're writing a historical novel for the plot to be historically plausible.
What holds Alma back is Alma. I feel the last hurdle for women is that we hold ourselves back and it is frustrating to see that happening. I try to convince women to put themselves forward, get themselves published and not hold themselves back because of some idea that they're not quite perfect. I'm putting in my own feelings about that in the novel.
Alma has support during her entire life, from her father to her uncle to scientist Alfred Russel Wallace, who all see her greatness. Her didacticism and perfectionism stop her from putting her work in the world, and this is a problem particularly egregious in women's lives