The Signature of All Things – A Book Review

Book Review: The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

signature of all things cover tiltedElizabeth’s Gilbert’s historical novel The Signature of All Things swings into action at a critical juncture between the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution.  Exploitation of the New World is a fraught but lucrative enterprise bringing lands, fresh resources, and most importantly, valuable plants for a rapacious coterie of collectors.  Far from an elegant pursuit, botany is brutal but profitable, and many will die in the quest for the new.

Red haired, choleric and amoral, Henry Whittaker, is surely one of the liveliest and compelling historical figures never to have lived.  Discovered stealing plants to sell, the ‘useful little fingerstink’ is brought before self-noting botanist Joseph Banks, and sent as a botanic spy on Captain Cook’s third voyage.  Used and humiliated by his mentor, Henry forges a future and a pharmaceutical empire from medicinal plants.

Born into privilege, Henry’s daughter Alma resembles her father: ‘Ginger of hair, florid of skin, small of mouth, wide of brow, abundant of nose’.  A stoic, clever girl, with a love of argument and understanding, she becomes a dedicated naturalist while young.  Disappointed in love, and confined by duty, she rejects sorrow and buries herself in the tiny universe of mosses, edging towards a major discovery.  The walled garden of Alma’s life is both illuminated and utterly transformed by the late arrival of a ‘fellow soul’, the enchanting and delicate artist, Ambrose Pike.

Alma’s journey towards personal and professional enlightenment is touching and transfixing. Engaging, salty, and vivid, her story is immersed in a relentless, and fascinating flow of historical detail.   Often lyrical and quite beautiful on Alma’s pure love for her work and catastrophic love for Ambrose, the novel is clear eyed on the grimmer issues of  the day such as slavery, venereal disease, asylums and shipboard sodomy.

Perhaps Gilbert’s greatest achievement, is to bring to life the commitment and passion of the naturalist for her field of study, at a time when science poses a greater challenges biblical truth through the closer examination of nature.  Alma is unimpressed by the mystical idea of a divine code (the ‘signature’ of the title), based on God’s arrangement of plants and objects.  Falling firmly on the side of science and argument, she nevertheless struggles to square her discoveries with her experience of human nature and altruism.

Gilbert feasts deeply upon the language of the period and studs the text with beguilingly archaic words such as ‘ensorcelled’, ‘gallimaufry’, ‘marplot’ and, importantly for Alma’s self discovery, ‘quim’.   The rich and inventive description uplifts and occasionally disconcerting.  Can a servant really be described as a ‘competent young washbasin of a girl’?  But the reader is nevertheless enslaved and borne along by the impulsive, rhythmic energy of the writing and ongoing discovery.

Fans of Gilbert’s phenomenally successful memoir Eat, Pray, Love may see her as having diverted from form with this historical epic.  But it is entirely typical of Elizabeth Gilbert to take a brave creative risk and carry it through wholeheartedly and I, for one, am glad of it.

Both Eat, Pray, Love. and The Signature of All Things feature as protagonist, a strong, intelligent and self-critical woman, for whom work is its own reward.  Both open themselves to transformational new experiences, seeking only to know and to be known.  It seems that in The Signature of All Things, the apple has not fallen all that far from the tree.

 

Note: This book review was published in Metro Magazine, Jan 2014 edition.

 

Longbourn by Jo Baker: A review

longbourn coverA giant fibreglass Mr Darcy arises from the Serpentine, in a TV channel promotion.   Slapstick movie Austenland staggers on to screens and Bridget Jones is resurrected.  The Pride and Prejudice juggernaut rolls on, exploiting and warping our fascination with its characters in ways which Jane Austen could never have conceived or, one supects, countenanced.

And so it is in hope, but slight trepidation, that an ardent admirer of Austen might approach Longbourn.  Its cover copy line‘Pride and Prejudice - the servants’ story’ raises not just our hopes but also the zombiesque spectre of fan fiction in which beloved characters are reanimated, but somehow not quite as they were.

Fear not, dear reader.  The unsparing Austenian observation and inventive wit of author Jo Baker have conspired to create a world of convincing character and detail in which the most die hard Austen devotee can die happy.

In Longbourn, the freshly imagined servants of the Bennet family, command centre stage in a compelling drama.   Readers may be lured by the repressed aura ofMr Darcy, but they will stay for the struggles and hopes of gutsy strong-minded housemaid Sarah, redoubtable Mrs Hill, exotic Ptolemy and mysterious, war damaged James Smith.

The story marches alongside Pride And Prejudice like an adjoining property.  Familiar landmarks are glimpsed but from a fresh perspective, and it is in these differences that the greatest fascination lies.

Until now, we, and the young ladies Bennet, have been insulated from the gritty daily realities of running a small country house. Exhaustion, laundry, chilblains, excrement and job insecurity feature daily. One’s best and finest creations are destined always for others.

Longbourn obliges us to confront some fond notions of elegance and refinement through the lens of the loaded mistress/servant relationship.  Although the young ladies might present themselves as ‘smooth and sealed as alabaster statues’, their linen reveals them to be ‘frail, leaking, forked bodily creatures to their laundress.

Lizzie’s long admired disregard for bad weather is naturally viewed rather more critically by her maid:‘If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah thought, she would be more careful not to trudge through muddy fields’.

Despite the physical hardships of the servant’s life it becomes clear that material comfort is not a panacea “Perhaps it was actually quite a fearful state to live in – the knowledge that one had achieved a complete success”.  Elizabeth, for all her brilliant match is obliged to be ‘what she is required to be’.  And even Derbyshire’s largest fortune cannot protect her against that great equalizer, childbirth.

The passionate love affair between James and Sarah is all the more touching for its awkward organic beginnings and its contrast to that other relationship.  Sarah’s freedom to choose, both in work and in marriage is hard won and deeply satisfying.

The greatest fun is to be had in the subtle but masterly rehabilitation of familiar characters.  Mr Bennet’s scandalous new back-story generates new compassion for scatty, fractious Mrs Bennet.  Even perennially pompous Mr Collins emerges surprisingly sympathetically. Meanwhile, it ought to come as no real surprise to anyone that a young housemaid ought not to be left alone with Mr Wickham.

Longbourn will delight both new fans and Austen purists alike.  A vivid and engaging story, its characters live on in the imagination.

Readers, we have a new classic.

This review was published in Metro Magazine in December 2013

Inspiration: Paper to Petal – 75 Whimsical Paper Flowers to Craft by Hand

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Paper to Petal – 75 Whimsical Paper Flowers to Craft by Hand by Rebecca Thuss and Patrick Farrell, published by Potter Craft Review in short: This book makes my heart beat faster. Review at length:  As a confessed ‘binge crafter’ of immense and rapid enthusiasms (my personal style but you can borrow it), I love the thrill of the new.  I skip passionately from one activity to the next, bogging on in, mastering the basics and moving on.  There are so many fun and interesting things to do, so why confine yourself to just the one thing?  Shirley Conran once said ‘Life’s too short to stuff a mushroom’. I disagree, but … Continue reading

Made from scratch: everyday pleasures

Homemade._SX260_Every now and again I get very excited by a new recipe.  But it’s never one of those Cuisine Magazine extravaganzas with 27 ingredients.  Instead, the recipes which float my boat are those which show how to make something I’d ordinarily be obliged to buy such as crackers, pasta, biscuits, jam and …marshmallows you know, just the essentials.

With this approach to cooking, the pleasure comes from a feeling of self sufficiency, a smidgen of frugality and a soupcon of sticking it to ‘big food’.  In going back to the way our grandmothers used to cook, there’s something of the pioneering spirit about it. If you have relied on preprepared or processed foods (and let’s face it there can’t be too many families with two parents working outside the home who haven’t) is can feel empowering to get back to basics and demystify food. For me it’s satisfying to circumvent the commercial powers that be, and I enjoy knowing what goes in to what we eat.  Some say growing your own food is a political act.  I’d say cooking it is too.

My favourite recipes are based around pantry staples, with the considerable benefit that you don’t need to get dressed to make them (no special trip out for pomegranate molasses!). Generally staples can be bought in bulk, meaning that otherwise pricy Lavosh crackers for example cost virtually nothing to make, and you can make a lot at once.

If a recipe is to make it on to the regular rota of things made in my kitchen they also need to be more delicious than ‘shop bought’. Putting some spectacular failures aside for a moment, this is often shockingly easy.  A wise gardening rule is only to grow what you really like to eat.  This rule applies to cooking and baking as well.  If the kids eat them, and they store or freeze well, consider me sold.

There are certain reliable guides I have found, and I highly recommend them.

Everyday-109x150Sophie Gray of Destitute Gourmet is my go-to for all basic household cooking.  My top five most cooked items, including birthday cakes and everyday baking come from her stable.  These are the cookbooks I wished to replace first after an unfortunate incident with a rogue watermelon.

Sophie is remarkable for her down to earth approach, her sense of humour and her understanding of the pressures involved in feeding a family well and healthily on a budget.

Homemade._SX260_

One indicator of long term value in a cookbook for me is the number of times I have had it out from the library before I buy it.  I just couldn’t let this one go.   Homemade is a gorgeous book by Yvette Van Boven, a Dutch chef with a lot of heart and a fearless ‘why not’ attitude to making hearty, delicious satisfying food, including the mucho moreish Lavosh crackers mentioned above.

 

Homemade pantry TopRight,1,0_SH20_

3. Another reliable indicator is the number of post it notes you stick into a book as you read through it for the first time.  This book, Homemade pantry – 101 foods you can stop buying and start making  looked like a little yellow 3M sponsored hedgehog by the time I had finished with it.  In fact, I’m still not finished with it.

Do you have a go-to cookbook for everyday or do you rely on friends and family for recipes? And what do you find you tend to make over and over again?