A Woman of Science, an Age of Wonder

Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things (Viking, 2013)

Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder (Pantheon, 2008)

The Signature of All Things, Gilbert’s first full-length work of fiction after her memoir Eat, Pray, Love became a surprise hit, is a big, ambitious book. It ranges across space and time, taking us from London to Philadelphia to Tahiti to Amsterdam, and over the threshold of the Enlightenment into the dawn of the Darwinian age. Its character roster includes thieves, martyrs, slaves, madmen, saints, prostitutes…and botanists, who are by no means the least compelling of the lot. The central figure is Alma Whittaker, a brilliant but extremely unattractive girl, daughter of an uneducated self-made man whose fortune was founded in the rare plant trade. As Alma’s limited romantic possibilities crumble into disaster, she becomes fascinated with the life of mosses, those miniature forests that pass unnoticed beneath our feet but that may hold a key to the mysteries of the natural world.

I love the idea of exploring the life of one of those early female scientists, so determined and so heartbreakingly unappreciated. The scientific thread of Alma’s story, though, is frequently deflected by melodramatic episodes, from a friend who ends up in a madhouse to a sister seized by abolitionist fervor. Alma herself is a bit of a cipher, difficult to warm to, even though one may sympathize with her plight. Her erotic, um, explorations particularly struck me as a somewhat awkward and anachronistic concession to modern readers, who wouldn’t tolerate a book with no sex in it (except between plants). But who knows what those 18th century spinsters really got up to in their closets? Still, I was drawn along by Gilbert’s storytelling, which for me overrode her rather clumsy attempts at a neo-Dickensian style, and just enjoyed the ride through some very exciting decades in history.

With my curiosity whetted for some facts, I revisited those same decades in non-fictional form through Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder. Holmes defines the years between Newton and Darwin as the “second scientific revolution,” and links the discoveries of this age to the Romantic movement in poetry and art. He does this primarily through pocket biographies of a few key figures: the naturalist Joseph Banks, the astronomers William and Caroline Herschel, the explorer Mungo Park, and the chemist Humphry Davy.

Having come across these names mostly in dry textbook contexts, I was fascinated to learn more about their multi-faceted and eccentric lives, and to discover the links between their scientific work and the broader cultural ferment of the time. In those days, science, art, metaphysics, and politics were not as separate as they are today, and it was not so unheard of for a successful musician and composer (Herschel) to suddenly become a leading astronomer, or for a nascent poet (Davy) to put his oratorical abilities to use as a spellbinding lecturer on electricity. Everything was in flux, on the verge of revolution, and reaching toward a new concept of the cosmos as an evolving entity.

I noticed some incidents that were surely inspirations for The Signature of All Things: the living orrery (model of the solar system) that Keats participated in as a boy, just as Alma did as a child on her father’s estate; the epiphany that Mungo Park experienced while looking at a clump of moss, just like Alma in a similar moment of desolation. Indeed, the fictional Alma started to seem superfluous when confronted with such a rich trove of character and incident, any of which would make a fantastic basis for a historical novel; why has no one written one about the Herschels, for example? Maybe someone will now — but in the meantime, Holmes has crafted a narrative as riveting as any novel, and I’m very glad to have discovered it.


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