audrey niffenegger & tracy chevalier at highgate cemetery
Here’s my identical twin Candy Gourlay and me hanging out at Highgate Cemetery to hear a talk by Audrey Niffenegger and Tracy Chevalier after I’d spent the late afternoon jumping on the giant trampoline in Candy’s back garden.
The location was particularly relevant because the two of them had set novels in the cemetery Her Fearful Symmetry by Niffenegger and Falling Angels by Chevalier. Both had trained and worked there as guides and Chevalier had also done a lot of gardening for them. I painted up the sketch I’d been working on, although I was a bit naughty and gave it a little longer than my usual morning sketch time. But I think Niffenegger appreciated it when I gave it to her. I don’t normally get shy but I did a bit when I met her, and all the things I’d wanted to ask her sort of flew out of my head.
Final painting: the scene in Her Fearful Symmetry where the ghost Elspeth realises she has some effect over electrical appliances, and accidentally kills the twins’ television.
I thought both books were a great read: The story in Falling Angels begins at the time of the death of Queen Victoria, and features two families who own plots next to each other at the cemetery. The book picks up on the Victoria fascination with death and all its trimmings, the busy goings-on of the cemetery and the various friendships and liasons made there. Chevalier said that she likes to write about things in a state of change, and she chose this period because of the changes that were taking place, not only in people’s attitudes to God and death, but in the cemetery itself. Just about that time, people were starting to accept cremation as a burial alternative, women were fighting for the vote (the book’s main character longs for change and becomes a suffragette) and the cemetery itself looked very different to how it looks today. It used to be very open and tidy, with very few trees, and now it’s kept in a lovely, tangled, wild state of ‘managed neglect’.
Her Fearful Symmetry is partly set in the cemetery, but much of it’s set in a block of flats next door, where one of the cemetery tour guides (and its historian) lives downstairs from his lover, Elspeth, who dies right at the beginning of the novel. Elspeth is strong-willed (stronger than her estranged twin who lives in America) and refuses to leave the world, and finds she’s stuck haunting her own flat, unable to escape. In her will, she’s left everything to the twin daughters of her sister, who can claim their inheritance if they agree to live in the flat for year. The pair move in and we get to watch lots of different strange relationships evolve. I absolutely loved this book, its strangeness and the fact that it’s so gripping even though there’s not one character with whom you can entirely sympathise, and lots of ambiguity.
Here are the notes I took from the evening:
And I’ll post a few photos from a trip that Stuart and I took to Highgate Cemetery about a month ago, when I found out about the talk and managed to snatch up the last two tickets. I found it interesting when Niffenegger said that she really thinks people should go around the cemetery the first time without their camera, just to soak it in. She found herself looking through the viewfinder the whole time and trying to ‘collect’ the cemetery to take home with her, just as I did. My camera battery ran out halfway through, and I suppose it was a very different experience after that.
Here’s the grave that Niffenegger mentioned as her favourite to talk about when she leads cemetery tours, of George Wombwell the menagerist:
This marker reads: ‘Stony’ Richard Smith, 16 February 1836 – 28 August 1900
Of Stone in Staffordshire, Macclesfield in Cheshire and London. After years of patient investigation he patented on the 6th Oct 1887 his improved treatment of the wheat germ and broken wheat which made the manufacture of Hovis bread possible.
The Egyptian Avenue. (Our guide told us that The Valley of the Kings had just been uncovered, and Brits were crazy for all things Egyptian. It took awhile to catch on because of it’s ‘pagan’ look, but then became very fashionable.)
The founder of Foyles bookshop:
Karl Marx draws lots of visitors:
The family grave of painter John Constable.
And a horse sculpture, just across from one of a famous prize fighter with a huge dog, and a beautiful sleeping angel… but my battery had run out.
Niffenegger commented that no one’s written a history of Highgate Cemetery, and hoped some day someone would take it up. I can imagine a graphic novel history could be incredible, all the stories you’d be able to tell! It’s really too much for one person, perhaps it could be done as an anthology, with different artists researching different eras of the cemetery and the people who have been buried there.
Edit: See other write-ups of the event by Candy Gourlay and The Fallen Monkey! Here’s the short video Candy took on her phone – Chevalier talking about her work at the cemetery and meeting Niffenegger – posted over on ‘Notes from the Slush Pile’.
Not sure how long this link will work, but you can listen to the two of them giving a Highgate Cemetery tour on Radio 4’s Front Row here.