One of my favorite books read for this course was Tracy Chevalier’s Falling Angels. While the suffragette movement was a very influential and important part of this book, what really struck me the most was what the cemetery- that being Highgate Cemetery- meant to all of the characters in the book.
Just as a little background, Highgate Cemetery was opened in 1839 as part of a plan to provide seven large, modern cemeteries, known as the “Magnificent Seven”, around the outside of central London. According to the Highgate Cemetery website, “Graveyards and burial grounds were crammed in between shops, houses, and taverns- wherever there was space. In really bad situations undertakers, dressed as clergy, performed unauthorized and illegal burials. Bodies were wrapped in cheap material and buried amongst other human remains in graves just a few feet deep.” These circumstances were appalling and the necessary space for all of these bodies became Highgate Cemetery. “The sum of £3,500 was paid for seventeen acres of land that had been the grounds of the Ashurst Estate, descending the steep hillside from Highgate Village. Over the next three years the cemetery was landscaped to brilliant effect by Ramsey with exotic formal planting, complemented by the stunning and unique architecture of both Geary and Bunning. It was this combination that was to secure Highgate as the capital’s principal cemetery.” It was a gorgeous place to bury loved ones and to give them the kind of extravagant burial popular at the time. However, when people stopped wanting enormous, ostentatious funerals, Highgate started into a decline and the London Cemetery Company went bankrupt in 1960 and the United Cemetery Company then struggled to keep Highgate afloat and the gates were closed. 15 years later, Friends of Highgate Cemetery was formed to restore Highgate to its former glory and conserve the beauty of the space.
This BBC London Calling video features Highgate Cemetery, is beautifully shot, and provides more insight into the kinds of people buried there.
With all of this beautiful cemetery imagery in mind, it’s easy to see why Chevalier made this the most prominent setting in her novel. The cemetery means something different to each character. To Maude and Lavinia, this is the place of their meeting and where their friendship blossomed. But it is also a place of adventure- it is here that they meet Simon, the apprentice gravedigger. The girls and Simon are able to roam freely here and take a tour of all the angels in the cemetery. This haven is their safe place from the outside world- it is here that they can be solely themselves with each other and can feel free from the rest of the world’s entrapments. This is their space and they want to spend as much time here as possible because they can be out of the confining walls of their homes and their parents. It’s visually funny to imagine two girls running around a cemetery, especially in the Victorian era where little girls were meant to be proper. Even though Highgate was regal and beautiful, it was still a place for the dead and for mourning. Regardless, the girls felt spirited here and loved exploring the cemetery together and with Simon.
For Simon, this is a second home to him. He spends all his time here working with his father and learning how to become a gravedigger. Simon is the secret keeper of these two families, he almost acts as a bridge between characters and has a large knowledge of his surrounding spaces, thus making him a likely ally for the girls. He is able to navigate his way through the cemetery like nothing and is almost an unofficial tour guide when the girls first meet him. But unlike the other characters, the cemetery isn’t solely his space of freedom. Because he is constantly working and not able to enjoy the tranquility the cemetery offers, his space of freedom is the Coleman’s home, where he comes to and gets free food from Jenny. The cemetery is like Simon’s backyard and through his knowledge of the space and his ability to maneuver through it, he learns the secrets of the different characters and is almost responsible for their well-being.
Most importantly, though, is the effect the cemetery has on Kitty. The book opens with Kitty waking up next to a man that’s not her husband at a New Year’s Eve party. Richard is hoping the partner switching will bring his wife back to him, but unbeknownst to him, Kitty’s fire has long been extinguished. There is a point in the book where Kitty is confiding to Gertrude Waterhouse and she says, “I have spent my life waiting for something to happen… And I have come to understand that nothing will. Or it already has, and I blinked during the moment and it’s gone. I don’t know which is worse- to have missed it or to know there is nothing to miss.” It is during this time that the reader can truly see what kind of internal struggle Kitty faces daily: she never wanted kids, she doesn’t feel the connection to Maude that Gertrude feels with Lavinia, she doesn’t want to just sit around and be a wife, she feels trapped and knows there has got to be more to life. And it isn’t until she finds the beginning of what she needs in the cemetery: John Jackson. Even though he won’t have sex with her immediately, when he finally does, she says, “At last the heaviness that has resided inside me since I married- perhaps even before I was born- tifted, boiling up slowly in a growing bubble.” This is the start of her transformation and she found this in the cemetery. She used to come to this space specifically for Mr. Jackson and as soon as she achieved what she needed, she didn’t feel the need to come there anymore, but could feel the fire inside of her and knew that she could do something- thus joining the Suffragette Movement.
While she may not have been the best mother, she fought for what she believed in and indirectly instilled a sense of independence in her daughter that continued even after she died. This cemetery was not just a space for the dead, it was a space for transformation and the reader could see that in the growing of the characters throughout this novel. I find it only fitting that the ending of the book takes place in the cemetery where the beginning of the book also took place. However, the attitudes of the characters at the end are vastly different and changed since the beginning of the book. And while I didn’t talk about every character and how the cemetery influenced them, the idea that Highgate was a place of transformation is definitely apparent.