In her latest novel, "Signature of All Things" (Viking 2013; $28.95), Elizabeth Gilbert takes us back not only to the Golden Age of Botany (the late 18th and early 19th centuries) but also to her own roots. Gilbert‘s father was a Christmas tree farmer and her mother a master gardener.
“When I grew up, I distanced myself as far as possible from the soil,” says Gilbert.
Indeed, looking at her writing -- her article about working in a popular New York bar was turned into the movie “Coyote Ugly” and her book "Eat Pray Love" sold over 10 million copies and also made it to the screen and starred Julie Roberts – she would seem the epicenter for all things urban and international.
But after marrying, Gilbert moved to Frenchtown, New Jersey, a Victorian era hamlet on the Delaware River with a population of about 1,000. Once there she planted both rambling flower and Native plant gardens.
“I’m sitting here looking out at my flower garden and beyond to the Pennsylvania Mountains," she said.
Though she admires formal, meticulously planned and implemented formal gardens, her love is the chaos of her English cottage garden with masses of flowering plants in a vast array of colors, sizes and shapes planted as though she just thrown seeds up in the air, letting them land where they might.
“My garden is big and messy with irises, roses, hollyhocks and delphiniums,” said Gilbert. “It is very forgiving.”
It is a garden style that the heroine of "Signature of All Things," Alma Whittaker, might have disdained. Alma, who in this day and age would have had at least a PhD in botany, comes to not only run her father’s vast, global medicinal apothecary business but also, and surprisingly, Gilbert makes this fascinating, becomes the world’s foremost expert on moss.
The novel, epic in scope, manages to entertain and educate at the same time. Gilbert said she did three year’s worth of intense research that included reading for six hours a day including tomes on the pharmaceutical trade, missionaries, taxonomy and abolitionists. Research also took her to Britain, Tahiti and Australia. She reread a worn copy of her great-grandfather's 1784 edition of "Captain Cook's Voyages." Gilbert then synthesized what she read so that it becomes the weave of the story showing us the business side of finding, importing and exporting plants and even the burgeoning business of printing botanical books.
“Because it was so intense and on one subject, it was almost like getting a PhD,” said Gilbert, who also reached back into her own horticultural experiences from growing up on a Christmas tree farm – no longer trying to distance herself from all that.
Alma lives at Whiteacres, the vast property her father built and it was from here she conducts her studies. Based upon Woodlands, a once magnificent Federal-style mansion built on the Schuylkill River in 1788 and known for its amazing gardens, we are part of Alma’s life as well as those of her precise Dutch mother, remote, unyielding and full of moral certitude; her adopted sister Patience, considered the most beautiful woman in Philadelphia who becomes an abolitionist and immures herself with her husband and children in dire poverty in sympathy for the needy; and the sister’s best friend, a flighty and slightly daft heiress who marries the man Alma loves. Head of the household is Henry Whittaker, Alma’s cantankerous, hard drinking, brilliant father, a self-taught, self-made millionaire who cannot write but understands the workings of finance and botany.
“It was so hard ending the book, I so loved Alma that as I was writing I was crying sheaths of tears,” says Gilbert.
“Botany was about plants, so it was the only field of science open to women,” said Gilbert. “And when I decided to write fiction about, I knew I wanted to write about plants after a magical moment in a garden.
“Gardens never fail to delight.”