“Hard Times in Suffragette City:” Drawing Connections between the Women’s Rights Movement of the Early 1900’s and Tracy Chevalier’s “Falling Angels”

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Upon reading Tracy Chevalier’s Falling Angels, I noticed that there was a great deal of variation within the different perspectives from each of the characters in this novel.  The characters in the novel alone, represent different views of feminism. Each character had something different to say and gave us something different to think about.  Kitty Coleman, is a prime example of person we watch grow up before our own eyes.  Kitty represents the youthful side of this social transformation that swept England during the time this novel takes place. This movement was known as the “Suffragette” Movement; a women’s rights movement that took place from the turn of the century (i.e., early 1900s) up until the Mid-1910s.  I felt that the female characters do a great job at the different mix of views of what a feminist was during this time.  An example of Kitty’s perspective of the Suffragette movement comes to us towards the end, when she argues with her husband Richard about her involvement with the suffragettes.  Kitty narrates:

“Richard’s response was predictable—a rage he contained in front of the police but unleashed in the cab home.  He shouted about the family name, about the disgrace to his mother, about the uselessness of the cause.  All of this I had known to expect, from hearing of the reactions of other women’s husbands. Indeed, I have been lucky to go this long without Richard complaining.  He has thought my activities with the WSPU a harmless hobby, to be dabbed in between tea parties.  It is only now he truly understands that I, too, am a suffragette.” (197)

This narrative passage shows the reactions that one would see, not only from the point of view of people representing the news media of this time, but what goes on behind the closed doors of the private lives of women in England.

But not all women were supportive of the suffragettes.  A character who represents this opposition is Lavinia Waterhouse; a woman of self-proclaimed etiquette and represents the snobby, elitist views of what a woman should be.  For example, we can see on pages 102 and 103, an etiquette guide to how one presents his or herself at get this… a funeral! And no, she did not focus on it from the point of views of respect and how one should behave which would be understandable yet obvious etiquette.  All she describes in detail, is what one should wear. This has everything to do with the suffragettes because even though many of them were either of middle class/upper class, many of them believed in breaking out of the sexist stereotypes that were given to what a woman was supposed to with her life and not conform to this elitist perspective of what a women should be. To conclude, I believe that the influence of the suffragette movement in England is greatly depicted in this novel.  Furthermore it gives the reader a look at the struggle from personal levels of characters who grow and learn about who they really are and they want to do with their lives.  And in this case that I being part of “suffragette city.”

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Falling Angels

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.

“In those days — the last of Queen Victoria — every house had its Angel.”

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Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier, is a novel of historical fiction that takes place in London at the turn of the century and a few subsequent years following the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. The novel centers largely around the ever-strengthening Suffragette Movement in England. There is an interesting parallel to be drawn between this novel, especially the implications of the title, and an essay by Virginia Woolf that discusses the idea of ‘The Angel in the House’.

Woolf’s essay ‘Professions for Women’ is primarily concerned with the idea of the ‘angel’. In this text, the angel embodies the epitome of what society has constructed as the perfect woman. These societal constraints have such a long history that instead of the unwritten rules simply imposing themselves on unwilling women, women are also imposing these ideals on themselves. This is because the ideals are taught and deeply entrenched in the mentality of women from infancy. From reading Woolf’s essay, one gets the sense that the woman who is confronting the angel is essentially confronting a sense of guilt and inferiority, a feeling of duty, a desire to be something society sees as ‘perfect’, an inner demon of sorts. Woolf describes the angel: “I will describe her as shortly as I can. She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it — in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. Above all — I need not say it —-she was pure. Her purity was supposed to be her chief beauty.”

By juxtaposing this essay with Falling Angels one can see some interesting implications. The novel has a literal falling angel in the cemetery, in which the angel falls as if to foreshadow Kitty Coleman’s upcoming extra-marital indiscretion, her eventual abortion, and her involvement in the suffragette movement, which would absolutely be considered a degradation of the “purity” of the angel.

Kitty as a character was never afraid to speak her mind, even in polite society, but when she becomes involved in the Suffragette Movement she is able to voice her opinions on a national scale. The scandal was that these were her opinions, not her husbands. This is another way in which she spits in the face of the angel who, in Woolf’s essay, says, “Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own.” Through her actions, Kitty kills her personal angel just as Woolf recommended. Throwing off the constraints of proper social conduct, Kitty creates scandal by riding a bike through the city and showing her bare legs in public, something she deems liberating. “For most of the march I felt as if I were walking through a dream… What I did feel sharply was the sun and air on my legs. After a lifetime of heavy dresses, with their swathes of cloth wrapping my legs like bandages, it was an incredible sensation.”

Interesting though, in this novel, that with Kitty’s liberation comes her downfall. Falling Angels is packed with subtext and I can’t imagine that Kitty’s deterioration as a marginally good mother and wife is just there for literary intrigue. The inverse relationship between her ability to be a good mother and wife and her increasing involvement in the suffragette movement suggests that perhaps some of the qualities of the angel should be kept. The angel as a source of doubt, limitation, and the smothering of creativity and individual thought should be destroyed, certainly, as Woolf implores us to do. However, in light of Kitty’s position as a mother, a level of self-sacrifice, such as that the angel embodies, is desired. This at least is my interpretation of Falling Angels in regards to the angel in the house.

Queen Victoria (“Falling Angels” By Tracey Chevalier)

queen_victoria_by_bassanoQueen Victoria

In the novel “Falling Angels” By: Tracey Chevalier, the death of Queen Victoria was a monumental moment in the story. In the beginning of the novel, it explains how Gertrude Waterhouse was dressed up appropriately for a wedding, while Kitty Coleman was not. This could be looked at as a sign of how both the characters are being viewed. Kitty Coleman is being perceived as not following tradition when she shoes up in a blue dress for the funeral instead of the proper attire of a black dress. Meanwhile, Gertrude Waterhouse is in traditional cloths. Already we get a sense that Kitty Coleman may have different views on society and it’s tradition than Gertrude Waterhouse. Also a quote from the book states (Gertrude speaking), “I was of course as civil as I could be, but it was clear that Kitty Coleman was bored with me. And then she made cutting remarks about Livy, and said disrespectful things-not exactly about the Queen, but I couldn’t help feeling that Victoria had in some way been slighted.” This quote captures how close Queen Victoria must have been to Gertrude Waterhouse and how Kitty Coleman must have offended her by the statement she said.

When reading father into the story, you come to realize that Waterhouse’s are not in the same class as the class as the Gertrude’s. This may be an indicator of why Gertrude was more involved in the Victorian way of life and why the death of Queen Victoria influenced her more than Kitty Coleman. Gertrude states, “…and to be sure I am very pleased with our new little house and with a garden full of roses rather than the neighbor’s chickens scrabbling in the dirt.” This shows how different a life style that the Waterhouse’s have been living. It also explains the Coleman’s residence as well, “The front of the house is so elegant- the garden is full of rosebushes, and the steps leading up to the door are tiled in black and white.” Then Gertrude adds, “The door of our own house opens directly onto the pavement.”

Queen Victoria’s rule had an impact on society. According to the article, “Victoria- by The British Monarchy”, “During Victoria’s long reign, direct political power moved away from the sovereign. A series of Acts broadened the social and economic base of the electorate.” Also, the article states, “On social issues, she tended to favor measures to improve the lot of the poor, such as the Royal Commission on housing.” This fact ties in the connection of respect the Gertrude Waterhouse has for Queen Victoria. In a sense, Queen Victoria was helping out her family, and her passing was a tragedy for her and the family. Back towards the beginning of the book it states how even Gertrude’s daughter Livy was even crying for the Queen. This could have been an influence of the parents educating her on the benefits the Queen may have had on the family. Also, it states how Kitty Coleman was actually making fun of Livy for crying. This shows how Kitty Coleman did not share the same connection as Gertrude did in accordance to the benefits that the Queen did for societies lower class.

Link to Website: http://www.royal.gov.uk/historyofthemonarchy/kingsandqueensoftheunitedkingdom/thehanoverians/victoria.aspx

Falling Angels

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I found Falling Angels to be extremely interesting and one of my favorite books that we have read so far. I have always found the Victorian era to be fascinating, and have taken a couple of history classes that have focused on the Victorian Era. One of the things that interested me about the reading was the attitudes to women’s suffrage, specifically the women of the novel. Tracy Chevalier’s website provides background information on the Victorian era, as well as information about the Women’s Suffrage Movement.

 

http://www.tchevalier.com/fallingangels/bckgrnd/suffrage/index.html

 

Women’s Suffrage was passed in 1918, with the Representation of the People Act. This act allowed for women over the age of 30 to vote. Falling Angels ends in 1910, which is eight years before the act was passed. One of the points that I found very interesting was the attitudes that many of the characters had toward the suffragettes.

Many of the characters in the novel had negative views on women’s suffrage. One of the character’s who held a negative view women’s suffrage was the house keeper Jenny Whiby. On page 185 she states, “I finally listened to them suffragettes today as I passed round the scones. What I heard made me want to spit. They talk about helping women but it turns out they’re choosy about who exactly they help. They ain’t fighting for my vote – only for women who own property or went to university.” Jenny brings up the interesting point that there would be a limited group of people who would be enfranchised if they succeeded in obtaining suffrage. The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU)’s main objective was to gain the rights for some women to be able to vote. Their intention was for women to be on the same page as men, who at the point of the WSPU’s founding in 1903 only 1/3 of men were able to vote in elections. Once the government passed the Representation of the People Act it gave a selected group of women the right to vote, this included women over the age of 30 who either owned property or rented property at 5 pounds a year or if their husband fit these requirements. This act allowed for about 8.5 million women to vote. Although this enfranchised many women, this act would not allow for women like Jenny Whiby to be able to vote. Jenny would be one of the women with something to gain from obtaining the vote. She was fired and kicked out of the house once she became pregnant she had virtually no rights. She was not able to take any action legally that would help her and make her life easier. If women like Jenny obtained the vote they would be able focus on issues that would make like for working class, or single women more livable.

 

The WSPU received a lot of criticism as an organization that existed to serve the interests of the middle and upper class. Ada Nield Chew was a figure in the Independent Labour Party and in a letter published in The Clarion stated, “The entire class of wealthy women would be enfranchised, that the great body of working women, married or single, would be voteless still, and that to give wealthy women a vote would mean that they, voting naturally in their own interests, would help to swamp the vote of the enlightened working man, who is trying to get Labour men into Parliament.”

It is interesting to see the different viewpoints that are presented in this novel on women’s suffrage. Women like Kitty Coleman who were themselves suffragettes, to women such as Gertrude Waterhouse, who tended to have a strict Victorian view on the ways things should be done, to women like Jenny Whiby who did not support the movement who did not support a movement that did not support them her as a working class women.

Falling Angels

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I find the spatial politics within Tracy Chevalier’s Falling Angel’s to be particularly interesting. The Coleman’s are upper-middle class and therefore live in a larger house with live-in servants and vast, luxurious gardens. Kitty Coleman embraces the modernity that she is able to afford, and creates the space that she lives in to reflect her interests. However, Gertrude Waterhouse represents a lower class, and has a greater appreciation for traditional lifestyles. The two mothers therefore end up clashing and resenting their daughter’s friendship, because in life, the spaces that they inhabit are too different. When analyzing these spaces from a Marxist viewpoint, one could say that the Coleman’s money therefore defines their spaces as more powerful, which could be the cause of the rise in Kitty’s ego and the reason that Gertrude feels threatened by the Coleman’s.  This spatial politics between these two being sour is ironic in juxtaposition with the reason that the two daughters met: their family’s own adjacent plots in Highgate Cemetery. Therefore, once the families have been stripped of everything (money, life, their current spaces), they will lie to rest for eternity in spaces which deem them equals. Neither family is then better or worse than the other, for they are both just people and share the same ultimate fate

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            The two families slowly grow to work together, as they realize how similar their fates are, how alike their desires are, and how the pushing apart of women was what was keeping them from moving forward. Virginia Woolf describes in her essay “Professions for Women” the one person who kept her back from writing and achieving what she wished as the ‘Angel in the House.’ Woolf defines this angel as, “intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily… in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own.”  I believe this type of Angel represents what was expected of women in the Edwardian time period. Women were expected to excel within the household and family matters, to succumb to each of their husbands desires and satiate all of their children’s needs, but never to exist outside the home. Women were thus deemed obedient creatures, merely slaves to their own households and expected to thrive under these societal expectations as perfect, compliant beings. Therefore, Woolf’s desire to kill these Angels is a commentary on her belief that women are worth so much more than just as obedient housekeepers.  Falling Angels even in the title itself is an extension of the argument in Woolf’s essay; that in order to excel in life women must break free of these expectations that limit them in order to recognize and bring their full potential to fruition. By placing the mothers in the book, Kitty and Gertrude, against each other, Chevalier is showing how women succumbing to the norms of society and believing that money or a large house can be the defining factor in what makes someone worthwhile can only hinder women from growing. Also, to refer back to my last post on The Emperor’s Babe, the women in Falling Angels also find power in their sexuality. Richard Coleman states in his first entry he thought by making Kitty jealous that would “open her bedroom door to [him] again.” Chevalier is also alluding to the idea that much of a woman’s power is found in her sexuality.

Interesting Links:

Virtual Tour of Highgate Cemetery

Tracy Chevalier finds stories in paintings

 

Falling Angels

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.

http://the-history-girls.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/when-to-stop-researching-and-start.html

Egyptian Avenue at Highgate Cemetery

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