Elizabeth Gilbert is of course best known for “Eat, Pray, Love” (2006), the megaselling memoir that was made into a popular 2010 film with Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem. But Gilbert's first love was fiction, to which she makes a triumphant return in her new historical novel, “The Signature of All Things,” about the life and loves of Alma Whittaker, a brilliant amateur botanist in early 19th-century Philadelphia. The daughter of a wealthy businessman and natural philosopher, Alma makes her way in the science of plant life; she's fascinated by mosses in particular. But her world view and emotions are turned upside down when she falls passionately in love with Ambrose Pike, a handsome artist with a distinctly romantic, spiritual and sensual side to which the clear-thinking Alma struggles to adapt.
Printers Row Journal caught up with Gilbert, 44, for a phone interview from her home in New Jersey. Here's an edited transcript of our chat.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
Q: From the first page of "The Signature of All Things," I was struck by the sense of not just reading historical fiction, but of having it narrated by something of a historical voice — the voice of a novelist of the 19th century — and yet it's not quite that at certain points of the story, if you know what I mean.
A: (Laughs.) I know exactly what you mean.
Q: It's like Charles Dickens with sex.
A: (Laughs.) Oh yeah.
Q: So how did you come up with that voice, and how did you calibrate it?
A: Well, you definitely started off on the right track with Dickens. He's my role model in all things writing, but particularly in this book. The thing I love about Dickens, and was trying to emulate, is the omniscient, omnipotent narrator, and the great confidence of the narrator, which marks 19th-century novelists in general and Dickens in particular. Dickens often has these very exuberant narrators, who convey the sense that "Not only do I know what I'm doing, and we're going to go on an adventure — it's going to be a terrific adventure." That's something he did magnificently, and I tried to emulate that.
At the same time, I didn't want to pretend that this book was written in the 19th century. Dickens never could write about sex. (Jane) Austen could never write about sex. (George) Eliot could never write about sex, except in the most oblique way. And I wanted to be able to explore these characters and their intimacy in a way that I wouldn't have been able to do if I were purporting to write an actual period novel. And I did struggle with how to do that, until I read "Wolf Hall." It felt like a lightbulb went on, because Hilary Mantel does such a magnificent job of writing in a way that feels accurate to the period without feeling like she's pretending to write a book that's 400 years old. It's a very modern voice that she uses to write about a very distant time, and that's what my aspiration was.
Q: Of course, Mantel is British, so maybe that 19th-century voice comes more naturally to her than it would to any American writer.
A: Well, I was raised on that literature; it's my native reading. All those authors are the ones who raised me, really.
Q: You grew up, I gather, in a home without television. Was it that you didn't have one, or you chose not to watch it?
A: Oh, I would have watched it 24 hours a day if we'd had one! I should say that I'm a big television watcher now; I stayed up late last night watching an episode of "Breaking Bad."
Q: But you did a lot of reading that maybe you wouldn't have, if you'd had TV.
A: That's right. We had a lot of books, and we also lived on a farm about a mile and a half from the library, so Dickens was a big part of my life early on. We had an old copy of "A Christmas Carol," and we brought it out and read it every Christmas. So not having TV worked out well for my sister and me, even though we resented it at the time — and even though, whenever I'd go to a friend's house, I'd turn on "Gilligan's Island" as quick as I could.
Q: What's your favorite Dickens novel?
A: It's probably "Great Expectations." I also love "Bleak House," although maybe I admire it more than love it. I'm always dazzled by the way he manages to have something like 250 characters in that book, and never once do you lose track of who they are. .
But I think his most emotional book is "Great Expectations," at least for me. I think the opening to "Great Expectations," the scene in the graveyard, is pretty much the best opening of a novel ever. It's incredibly dramatic and terrifying and exciting; it's almost like he's saying, "I dare you not to continue reading this book."
Q: Did you have other touchstone writers from that period — Jane Austen, maybe, or George Eliot?
A: I did, but I came to Eliot later in life than I'd like to admit, though she's become exceedingly important to me. It was only seven or eight years ago that I read "Middlemarch." And I revisited it again when I started writing this new book. She's probably my second-biggest influence now after Dickens, and after her, I'd say (Anthony) Trollope. I'm not a big Austen reader. I wouldn't say I dislike her, but if I had to choose between her and Eliot to bring to a desert island, it would definitely be Eliot.
Q: What about the Brontë sisters?
A: The Brontë sisters, of course — who are the kinkiest of the Victorians, I believe. If there's a writer from that period who I wish could have written about sexuality in a more direct way, it would be Charlotte. She was the most carnal of all of them.
Q: I would have said "Wuthering Heights" had the most potential for carnality.
A: Well, the initial scenes between Rochester and Jane Eyre are just so charged. There's this weird vibe between them that's really sexual.
Q: You could argue that the book is more erotic for the author not having had license to dive into the bedroom.
A: Well, that's what people say; they say the same thing about movies from the 1940s. But sometimes I wonder what a gifted writer like Charlotte would have done if she'd been allowed to discuss what really goes on in people's bedrooms.
Q: So what was the genesis of "The Signature of All Things"?
A: I had the topic first. That's usually the way it is for me; I usually get the setting or the topic first, then I get the people, and the last thing I get is the story. That's the trickiest part for me. I know who the characters are, and where they are, but I don't really know what the plot is.
In this case, I knew I wanted to write about botany. At that point in my life, gardening had become really important to me. And I knew I wanted to write about that golden age between the end of the Age of Enlightenment and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. It was the age of amateur scientists, who had a lot of adventures. And botany was the only branch of science that women could enter easily at that point.
Q: Why was that — because gardening was associated with ladies?
A: Right. Women have always been the ones to tend to the plants, so botany was a natural extension of what they were already doing. A lot of what one does as a botanist translates well from "women's work." So they were allowed to be there, at least until the middle of the 19th century, when a president of London College gave a speech saying that they needed to rescue botany from women! There were just too many women doing it, which was challenging the legitimacy of the science.
But during Alma's time, there were several great female botanists, and they tended to share three characteristics. They tended to be the wives or daughters of prominent natural philosophers. They tended to be independently wealthy. And they tended to be spinsters, or at least childless. And out of that came Alma.
Q: Is "The Signature of All Things" a feminist story?
A: I think of it as a feminist story in that it's about a woman finding her place in the world of work. But it's not a feminist screed, because it would have been implausible for me to have said that Alma did not find her stature in the world of botany because she was a woman. That wouldn't have been historically accurate.
Q: Maybe the biggest challenge she faces is how to reconcile her scientific approach to the world with that of Ambrose, who has a much different way of looking at things. That's an ongoing theme of yours, isn't it, how to reconcile the cerebral with the physical, the mind with the animal self?
A: Yes, definitely, although to be honest, in my own life I come down much more on the side of Ambrose. (Laughs.) I invented Alma, but she's a pure scientist, whereas I am a total flake! It was much easier for me to imagine Ambrose's mind than to imagine hers.
But in my mind, they're not just a couple; they're also a reflection of what was happening in the 19th century between science and religion. I hadn't understood, until I did the research for this book, how early that division started. Suddenly people were having to choose between believing in religion or believing in the facts that were coming to light, having to do with astronomy or the geological record.
Q: What's unexpected here, in a good way, is that it's the woman who's the rational thinker, and the man who's the tempestuous, romantic, Byronic figure.
A: Yeah, I thought that would be fun. (Laughs.) I also wanted to play with the idea that it's the man who's the object of desire, and the woman who's the frustrated lover. That's something you don't often see very much in literature, although to be frank, it's something I've experienced in my own life! (Laughs.) I know very well what it's like to desire somebody who doesn't want you in return.
Q: Well, we've mentioned Mr. Rochester and Jane Eyre. He's this romantic, brooding hottie, really, and Jane is described as rather plain.
A: Yeah, you're right. And he's withholding, and has erotic secrets, and is a bit of a hot mess. So good point. There's a bit of Jane in all of us.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer whose work appears in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Poets & Writers Magazine and elsewhere.
"The Signature of All Things"
By Elizabeth Gilbert, Viking, 499 pages, $28.95Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun