This is a historical novel set in Edwardian England, after the death of Queen Victoria and before the death of her successor, King Edward VII, 1901-1910.
The story looks at the social issues of this period using specific characters to tell a story, which is centered around the Highgate Cemetery in London. Much of the story takes place in the cemetery. Death and mourning are a part of the story.
The author uses changes in the first person narrative to tell the story. These are short chapters and help move the story along. This also provides both major and minor characters a way to tell their point of view.
Two families, the Waterhouse’s and the Coleman’s live next to each other but are from different social classes. Two friends, Maude and Lavinia, become close friends. The story is about the girl’s friendship but I thought the story was very much about social class and the position of women in Edwardian England. The story of Maude’s mother, Kitty Coleman, is a central element of the book. Kitty is unhappy in her role as wife and mother and unhappy about her “place”: “There is indeed no comfortable place for me – I am too near the fire or too far away.” (Chevalier p. 54). She is neglectful of Maude. A love affair with Mr. Jackson ends sadly with an unwanted pregnancy and abortion. Her eventual involvement in the suffrage movement allows Kitty to devote all of her energy into a cause, but this also ends in a tragic way.
Who are the angels in this story? This is a point the class will be discussing. I do think the view of the role of women in Victorian/Edwardian society, as wives and mothers, was idealized. This may be a way to say how this story “writes London” because it tells the story of how women of this era lived. Other class readings refer to her as Angel in the House. Do these angels fall when they look at changing their role in society specifically by gaining the right to vote? Knowing more about how women were viewed or learning more about the women’s suffrage movement in Great Britain isn’t essential in the reading of this book, but learning about the history of the time and place enhances the understanding of the story. Reading a good novel set in a specific period of history can make you want to learn about the time and any real life characters that are portrayed in the story. It would be interesting to learn if real life events depicted in the story really happened in the way the author describes the events.
In an interview from the blog History Girls, the author, Tracy Chevalier, discusses her research process when writing an historical novel. When asked when she had done enough to start writing an historical novel she states ” When have I read all the studies relevant to my subject; sought out diaries, notebooks, letters, ephemera; visited locations and soaked up their atmosphere; talked to experts and taken classes; read books and newspapers and magazines contemporary to the period; found information on the internet from passionate lovers of the subject; looked at paintings, drawings, etchings from the period; visited museums; watched people weave, or quilt, or make hats, or paint. Then short answer? Never.”
Chevalier, Tracy. Falling Angels. London: Penguin Books, Ltd. 2001. Book.
“When to stop researching and start writing by Tracy Chevalier.” The History Girls. 29 March 2013. Web. June 25 2013.
Egyptian Avenue at Highgate Cemetery