Gilbert’s sweeping saga of Henry Whittaker and his daughter Alma offers an allegory for the great, rampant heart of the 19th century.
All guile, audacity and intelligence, Whittaker, born in a dirt-floored hovel to a Kew Garden arborist, comes under the tutelage of the celebrated Sir Joseph Banks. Banks employs Whittaker to gather botany samples from exotic climes. Even after discovering chinchona—quinine’s source—in Peru, Henry’s snubbed for nomination to the Royal Society of Fellows by Banks. Instead, Henry trades cultivation secrets to the Dutch and earns riches in Java growing chinchona. Henry marries Beatrix van Devender, daughter of Holland’s renowned Hortus Botanicus’ curator. They move to Philadelphia, build an estate and birth Alma in 1800. Gilbert’s descriptions of Henry’s childhood, expeditions and life at the luxurious White Acre estate are superb. The dense, descriptive writing seems lifted from pages written two centuries past, yet it’s laced with spare ironical touches and elegant phrasing—a hummingbird, "a jeweled missile, it seemed, fired from a tiny cannon." Characters leap into life, visible and vibrant: Henry—"unrivaled arborist, a ruthless merchant, and a brilliant innovator"—a metaphor for the Industrial Revolution. Raised with Dutch discipline and immersed in intellectual salons, Alma—botany explorations paralleling 19th-century natural philosophers becoming true scientists—develops a "Theory of Competitive Alteration" in near concurrence with Darwin and Wallace. There’s stoic Beatrix, wife and mother; saintly Prudence, Alma’s adopted sister; devoted Hanneke de Groot, housekeeper and confidante; silent, forbidding Dick Yancey, Henry’s ruthless factotum; and Ambrose Pike, mystical, half-crazed artist. Alma, tall, ungainly, "ginger of hair, florid of skin, small of mouth, wide of brow, abundant of nose," and yet thoroughly sensual, marries Ambrose, learning too late he intends marriage blanc, an unconsummated union. Multiple narrative threads weave seamlessly into a saga reminiscent of T. C. Boyle’s Water Music, with Alma following Ambrose to Tahiti and then returning alone to prosper at Hortus Botanicus, thinking herself "the most fortunate woman who ever lived."
A brilliant exercise of intellect and imagination.