Of course, this novel is wonderful. Of course it has Liz Gilbert’s wonderful style, now transmuted so that it sounds like something out of the 19th century. Of course there are eccentric, larger-than-life characters.
But what made this book come alive for me was the BRILLIANT NARRATION of Juliet Stevenson, who caught the gruff shouts of Alma’s British father Henry Whittaker, the creamy Dutch accents of her van Deventer relations, the American accents of Alma herself, her husband Ambrose Pike, her American friends and relatives.
I really do not know how ONE PERSON managed to do this, but it was a tour de force!
Alma Whittaker is born in January 1800 to Dutch mother Beatrix van Deventer (whose family, in this novel, are concerned with the running of the Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam) and British father Henry Whittaker, who hails from Richmond, Surrey.
Those of us who have actually visited Richmond, Surrey will recall a charming 18-century town situated high above the Thames, near Richmond Park and Hampton Court Palace. But of course it had its sour corners, especially in the past. And that is where Henry comes from, a poor family of seven, including five children, an enslaved mother and a timid father, all inhabiting a one-room shack.
Henry begins his life poor and illiterate, but has a burning ambition to make something of himself. His father, called the King’s Mage for saving George III’s favorite apple tree by grafting it onto sturdier stock, is too timid to take advantage of this appellation, and never asks for more money, despite the fact that he really needs it.
This fact galls young Henry, who decides (like so many of us) to be the very opposite of his parent.
In no time at all, Henry gains the notice of Sir Joseph Banks for stealing his precious plants and selling them on to visitors from around Europe for a handsome profit. When Sir Joseph asks what happened to the money, Henry claims that he has a terrible gambling habit and that it has all disappeared. (Actually, Henry has buried several bags of silver coins around the gardens at Kew, where his father works.)
Joseph Banks, who has a taste for the unusual, sees potential in the 16-year-old standing before him, struck by the boy’s sheer nerve. After all, Henry could hang for his crimes. Instead, Banks decides to send him away on Captain Cook’s third (and last) voyage of discovery, where Henry is given the post of assisting the botanist on board.
By the time Henry turns 24, he has sailed the world, and thinks that Sir Jospeh should reward him for his pains by making him a Fellow of the Royal Society. However, illiterate fellows of dubious origin are not made Fellows of the Royal Society in 1784, and Sir Joseph, distracted by other matters, dismisses Henry with cruel peals of laughter.
And so Henry makes his way to Amsterdam, with all the precious plants he was going to give Sir Joseph Banks, plus all the bags of silver he dug up from Kew Gardens, and makes his name and fortune as a purveyor of medicinal plants. You could say that the fictional Henry Whittaker is the 18th century’s equivalent of Big Pharma, and like Big Pharma he makes a packet.
Eventually, he finds a Dutch woman of good family (the van Deventers) to marry, and they set off for Philadelphia, USA.
Eight years later, their only surviving child Alma Whittaker arrives, and then Liz Gilbert’s tale morphs into a fictionalized biography of a fictional character, who could have existed in 19th-century America.
I will not say more, so as not to spoil this story for those of you who have not yet experienced it. But if you are looking for a totally engrossing tale with much wisdom packed into it, then I highly recommend this volume. Five stars.Tap here for YOUR copy of Liz Gilbert’s THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS