In The Signature of All Things, the passion of invisible Alma Whittaker (“a mere passenger in the world”) with mosses, plants and botany becomes her secret obsession and intimate companion. Surrounded by a degree of wealth nearly unknown in the America of the early 1800s. Alma’s father, Henry, builds a vast estate called White Acre in an elegant, fledgling section of Philadelphia. A poor-born Englishman who was ashamed of his weakling father, the almost-illiterate Henry crosses the ocean and rises to become one of the richest inhabitants of the city.
As Gilbert follows Henry’s life from 1760 into the mid-1800s, we actually move through this book in three parts of Alama’s life. A child prodigy, a hidden love, and a respectable wife and a father span the Victorian ages. No one asks Alma for her memories in her lifetime, any more than they ask her sister, Prudence, or the family maidservant, Hanneke de Groot, who knows Alma intimately and comes to live in Philadelphia right behind Henry’s loyal Dutch wife, Beatrix van Devender.
Alma grows up in a world of privilege, a vast estate that expresses every minute detail—a compendium of Henry’s legacy and a reflection of his travels when he was exiled to the sea in 1776, dispatched by Sir Joseph Banks to discover the world on Captain James Cook’s third expedition to Tahiti. Alma herself comes to inherit much of her father’s ambitious and striving sensibilities, this boy so fraught with the instinct for advancement.
Alma is born to a new kind of creature entirely “such as the world had never before seen: a mighty, and newly minted American sultan.” Given a stern thrashing down of all her natural instincts but buoyed along by adoration for her father, Alma explores the Arcadia of White Acre at her will. Together with adopted sister Prudence, Alma grows into an energetic, young lady, enjoying the work of the mind as she dissects, memorizes, learns and categorizes every plant in reach.
Gilbert looks at this story from her own point of view, constantly offering the reader new perspectives and surprises. Her handling of period detail is perfection in this unfashionable world of moss hunters and collectors. She strikes a rich balance between character and local color, gorgeously creating the estate of White Acre and, later, the beaches of Tahiti with their tropical golden light. There Alma lands in search of the ghost of her thwarted love, and there she is finally able to formulate her views on the natural world and the random nature of our fates.
Alma’s journey reads like a Dickens novel, a wonderful social history that is part detective story with many twist and turns involving lost diaries and shattered letters, beautiful illustrations, and ship voyages. Connecting to the past, this is a story of a woman who struggles to find an independent place in a world where Victorian morality is everything. After the arrival of Ambrose Pike, “a younger man and a lovely man,” Alma too openly flouts the rules of what is expected from a girl in her position. Alma has always thought herself to be a woman of dignity and worldly knowledge, but her encounter with Ambrose forces her to see that she really is perhaps just a petulant, aging princess, a dried-up old spinster. Yet Ambrose forces Alma to make the best of her fate and allows her to move forward as she seeks an explanation for all of mankind’s sufferings.
So much historical fiction can be judged on how well the author knows what she’s writing about and how well she portrays the people living at the time. Gilbert does an excellent job of including real contemporaneous personalities: Joseph Banks, James Cook, and later Charles Darwin. They and the fictional characters mesh quite nicely with Alma’s ugly family secrets and a love grown brittle with no words. So many sexual opportunities are lost for the sake of Victorian propriety, Alma left in Amsterdam to bear the burden of her faults alone. Gilbert constructs a novel of a lifetime, ending with Alma as a broken-down old woman left to weep for what might have been.