… in Barber’s life and work will raise when films and TV programs captivate the general public.
I’ve already shared my thoughts on the novel in German, but will summarise my concerns in English here. Gilbert’s books are best-selling and circulating a conservative image of women be they contemporary or not.
In The Signature of All Things, Gilbert reproduces the patriarchal myth used in the large majority of female botanists biographies that Alma Whittaker, born in 1800, inherits her father’s love of botany. Alma also inherits her father’s ungainly looks and therefore has to make sure she is educated to make up for her ugliness. Gilbert’s book is based on research on female botanists at the time such as Mary Treat and Marianne North, but she only scratches at the surface. Unlike historians, she does not gain or provide her readers with an understanding of women’s scope of action and subjectivity at the time. Alma is constrained to the domestic sphere by her father and falls in love with every man who passes by at her house in Philadelphia. Eager to gain physical union with a man, she marries a man who prefers spiritual communion and is consequently exiled to Tahiti to oversee a vanilla plantation where he dies.
Towards the end, Gilbert stresses that Alma formulated the theory of competitive alteration. According to her theory, ‘the world was plainly divided into those who fought an unrelenting battle to live, and those who surrendered and died… . This fact was the very mechanism of nature – the driving force behind all existence, behind all transmutation, behind all variation – and it was the explanation for the entire world.’ (p. 434) Alma aimes to prove her theory with mosses and writes a manuscript that she does not publish, as she does not understand how the selfless acts of human beings (altruism) fit into her theory – a topic that occupied female intellectuals such as George Eliot at the time. When Charles Darwin publishes his On the Origin of Species (1859) she knows she has been right all along and sees that ‘knowledge is the most precious of all commodities’ (p. 497)
As such the novel is on adaptation – mosses adaptation as well as Alma’s. Alma defines herself through others, adapts to her father’s idiosyncrasies and does what others ask her to. Afraid not to have come up with a perfect theory, she does not publish her insights and leaves Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace the floor. Gilbert thus misses a chance to show that already in the 19th century there were women who thought and acted differently to the contemporary and current constrained gendered sphere. In addition, Gilbert creates the wrong impression that botany was an upper-class leisure activity for ladies, which certainly was the case, but plants also attracted middle- and lower-class people who contributed to the discipline, as Anne Secord showed in 1994.
Despite these objections, Gilbert certainly raises awareness for female scientists at the time such as Mary Treat, Marianne North and Mary Barber, who were more independent than Gilbert’s protagonist.