A Writer Reads: Behind the Microscope and Under It: Women and Girl Scientists

(a post from guest author, Mary Burns)

The Signature of All ThingsTwo fascinating novels I read recently feature women scientists, Easter Island by Jennifer Vanderbes and The Signature of All Things, by Jennifer Gilbert, whose popular memoir, Eat, Pray Love was made into a movie with Julia Roberts as the Gilbert character.  In the photograph on the flyleaf, Gilbert looks nothing like Roberts and her novel is nothing like the memoir.  Nor would Alma Whittaker, the novel’s main character, ever have been mistaken for a film actress.  In fact, the narrator emphasizes Alma’s attractiveness, her large size, her too prominent facial features, her uncontrollable hair and unquenchable thirst for knowledge, and love.

Alma is the daughter of a plant collector and amateur botanist, who made his fortune by teaming up with a Dutch businessmen to exploit for profit some of the medicinally useful specimens he found in far flung corners of the globe.  Alma’s mother was the daughter of a Dutch botanist.  The only natural child of these two who moved to the United States in 1793 and built a mansion near Philadelphia, Alma is forced to care for her father and manage the family business books.  Her dreams of being a botanist in her own right are limited by the size of the estate her father bound her to following his wife’s early death.  Driven by circumstances, determined to make the most of her limited situation, Alma discovers mosses in a corner of the property and begins to study them.  By the end of this large novel she has become an expert.  Alma is herself an example of adaption.  In fact she reminded me in some ways of my sister, a former poet, who lost her facility with language following a traumatic brain injury.  Not being able to write, or drive, she turned to photography and has become an expert on backyard flora and fauna.

Easter IslandI like the way the novel shows how women are as scientifically curious as men, but were often held back because of their gender.  Alma co-incidentally had an insight regarding evolution around the same time Darwin was writing his On the Origin of Species.  “I had one original idea in my life–and it happened to be an important idea, one that might have given a chance to be known–but I hesitated to put it forth,” says Alma.

What’s interesting is that some men continued to believe in their superiority in the next century, when one of the main characters of Easter Island, Greer Farraday, also a botanist, learns that her husband has stolen her research and presented it as his own.  Greer’s story continues from that traumatic discovery to Easter Island, where she intends to research the island’s ecosystem, particularly the first plants and how they may have originated from salt-water borne seeds.  Paired with her story is the tale of Elsa, who joins her husband on an exploration to Easter Island some fifty years before Greer’s arrival.  Elsa’s natural curiosity pulls her out of the conventional role of caretaker when she discovers keys to the language of the Eastern Islanders, a language that may reveal the secrets of the great stone statues, the moai.  Vanderbes cleverly draws together the stories of these two women whose actual lives never touched.

Rupert's LandAbout a decade after Elsa lands on Easter Island, Cora, in Rupert’s Land, by the B.C. writer Meredith Quartermain, is feeling very much out of place in her northern Alberta community.  The last thing she aspires to be is a mother, like her mother, who sews.  She would rather conduct experiments with electricity and dreams of setting up her own lab, at least working in a lab someday.  I hope she was able to do so, at least in the imagination of her fictional creator, because, of course, women are now respected for their work in all branches of science.  But even in the 1800’s notable women succeeded.  Alma Whittaker demonstrates how a woman scientist could survive much, (some of it bordering on incredulous) and even be recognized for her work.  No one knows exactly what became of the amateur linguist Elsa after her husband sailed off on an apparently short trip to rescue Elsa’s unpredictable sister Alice, but the implication is that she might have gone native.  All that remains of Elsa’s presence are first editions of Darwin, including The Voyage of the Beagle, which an Islander presents to Greer Farraday when she takes off for Iceland and the next stage of her research, as if confirming that the tradition of following one’s curiosity to the farthest corners of the earth would continue.

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