Sunday, 11 October 2015

Audrey Niffenegger and Highgate Cemetery

Some years ago I read an interview with Audrey Niffenegger in connection with her latest book Her Fearful Symmetry (all quotes below from the book). The novel takes place in and around the Highgate Cemetery in London. Reading this book made me very curious on this burial ground, of which I was not aware of before. It was therefore high on my list during my last visit to London. And it does not disappoint.

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The entrance to the West Cemetery
There were a lack of burial ground in and around London in the mid-19th century. Stephen Geary, architect and entrepreneur bought the land and established the cemetery in 1839. However, it is not one ordinary cemetery; he constructed tombs and buildings where people could buy burial grounds for their whole family. The area, today very lush and at places overtaken by vegetation, is a fantastic, wonderful place to walk around in. In 1854, the west side of the cemetery became too small so an eastern part was bought and added to it. To solve the problem with transporting the coffins after services (there is a road in-between the two sides), they dug a tunnel under it and problem solved. On the East side you can walk around by yourself, but the West side is only accessible by a guided walk, well worth to take.
"The Victorians had created Highgate Cemetery as a theatre of mourning, a stage set of eternal repose."
The Content ReaderFrom the beginning fifteen acres were consecrated for the use of the Church of England, and two acres for Dissenters. Burial rights were sold for a limited period or in perpetuity. One of the most magnificent tombs, or mausoleums more like it, was built by Julius Beer. He was a German Jew who came to England to make his fortune.  He was a businessman (made his money on the London Stock Exchange), banker and newspaper baron, and owned The Observer from 1870-1880. Since he was not a member of the English church he converted before his death, just so he could be buried here. The mausoleum was initially built for his daughter who died young, and inside it is decorated with statues made from the most famous sculptures and artists of the time. It is a magnificent building.

Our guide, Neil, took us around part of the cemetery. It is huge so it is not possible to see it all during the one hour fifteen minutes the tour lasted. Unfortunately for me, the two graves that I really wanted to see, Christina Rossetti's and Lizzy Siddal's (due to my latest fling on the Pre-Raphaelites) was too far away to be included in this tour. There were a lot of other graves to see though.

It also takes me back to the book by Audrey Niffenegger. She certainly took this tour, and most likely, had private viewings as well (since she obviously saw both Siddal's and Rossetti's gravs!). One of her main characters, Robert, is a scholar, writing about the people buried here. He also acts as a guide and having read these passages again before going to London, I recognised a lot of what Neil told us.
"Tonight he stood by the Rossettis and thought about Elizabeth Siddal."
The tour started with a man of the people, James William Selby, who was a coachman. He became famous for making the stretch London-Brighton in less than eight hours in 1888.

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Our guide Neil in front of the grave
 of James William Selby
We continued up the hill to the tomb of Sir Loftus Otway, who was a cavalry commander during the Peninsula War. Neil told us that the eco system of the tombs are such, that scientists have even found new species. In the Otway tomb a new species of a spider was found.
"He led them to the tomb of Sir Loftus Otway an enormous family mausoleum which had once featured large panels of glass."
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Sir Lofthus Otway tomb
Continuing uphills towards the Egyptian Avenue and the Terrace Catacombs which are really magnificent.
"Robert led them further uphill, stopping at the entrance to the Egyptian Avenue."

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The Egyptian Avenue

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Standing on top of a circle, shadowing these buildings, is a Lebanon Cedar, said to be 300 years old. You get really transferred to another place.
"...climbed up to the grass in the centre of the Circle of Lebanon (Cedar of Lebanon) 300 years old."  
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The Cedar of Lebanon
From here we climbed the stairs to come up on the same level as the Circle of Lebanon and here we stopped in front of the grave of George Wombell. He was a famous menagerist. His favourite animal was a lion, Nero, which was very tame. So tame that even the public could walk up to him. He holds the top place on Wombell's grave.

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Faithful lion Nero, guarding the grave
Along the path surrounding the Circle of Lebanon we came to the mausoleum of Mabel Veronica Batten and her lover, Radclyffe Hall. I had never heard about neither of them, but is always interested to hear about authors. Neil told us that Radclyffe Hall is actually a woman. She wrote a famous book called The Well of Loneliness, which became a groundbreaking novel in lesbian literature. It was, of course, banned at the time, at least in England. A different kind of love story.

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Mabel Veronica Batten tomb
By now it was time to head back to the gates. We passed by the grave of Thomas Sayers...
"Robert had whiled away a whole night watching as falling snow covered Lion, the stone dog that kept watch over Thomas Sayers, the last of the bare fisted prizefighters."
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We also passed by Michael Faraday, a famous scientist. He was also mentioned in an exhibition at the Naval Maritime Museum in Greenwich, which we visited the day after.
"He often sat with Michael Faraday, the famous scientist." 
On the way back we also passed by some newer graves, which shows that the cemetery is still used. Among others, for a person interested in books, I saw the grave of Beryl Bainbridge, which obviously died in 2010.

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An image that shows that this is a very old place!
This turned out to be a rather long post, so I leave the East part of the cemetery for next time. I let Robert from Her Fearful Symmetry tell us, when in a little bit of distress, he urged the tourist group on. Well, Neil did not have to do this. We slowly made our way back to the gates.
"Robert led them along paths, past the Dissenters’ section; he showed them Thomas Sayer’s grave where the Lion stone dog kept patient vigil; skipped Sir Rowland Hill, inventor of the Uniform Penny Post; then past the Noblin family mausoleum without comments. Robert parked the group in front of Thomas Charles Druce and jogged back to the twins. …He fumbled through Thomas Charles Cruce’s exhumation, skipped murder victim Eliza Barrow and also Charles Cruft of dog-show fame. He somewhat regained his form while talking about Elizabeth Jackson and Stephan Geary, then fairly hushed the group down the Cutting Path." 


  1. Great post, Lisbeth. I know of Highgate Cemetary but never visited it. Maybe one day. The Rossetti's are well known to me, their grandfather was from the village where my son went to school and they have their village hall named after them.

    1. Thank you. That is where I found the book about Eleanor Marx. I am quite fascinated by the Rosettis. Unfortunately, the grave of Christina Rosetti was not included in the guided tour. I love the Pre-Raphaelites and if you search on my blog you will find several reviews on various books about them and their women.