Thursday, 15 October 2009

A Tour of Highgate Cemetery



One of the chapters in Her Fearful Symmetry is entitled "A Tour of Highgate Cemetery" so how apt that just after reading the novel I was given a tour of the cemetery by the author, Audrey Niffenegger; such an experience certainly brought the novel's events to life.

First things first, I attended an Audrey Niffenegger event on Tuesday night with Jackie and Rachel and had a lovely time. After I became hopelessly lost (Rachel had to phone me as she looked at the funny girl directly across from the venue look bemusedly at her map before walking off in the wrong direction yet again), we entered the auditorium of The Bloomsbury Theatre and snagged three seats that were at the very end of the front row. Now I would like to say that it was some foresight on my behalf that these seats were directly in front of the signing table and beside the stairs leading up to it but it was blind luck; regardless though, it still placed me at the front of the queue to have my copy of the book signed (many thanks to Jonathan Cape for sending me a review copy) and gave us time for a coffee and book/blogging chat afterwards.

Both Rachel and Jackie have posted their accounts of the night (I linked to both above) so have a read if you haven't already. It was an interesting evening and Audrey Niffenegger comes across as a very likable yet eccentric woman with a wonderfully dry sense of humour (she is easily the type of person I would love to sit down to coffee with and randomly discuss books and things that interest us). I like writers who are foremost artists and embrace other mediums to tell stories as well as the written word (Neil Gaiman is another who instantly springs to mind); Audrey Niffenegger seems to enjoy numerous creative pursuits and in the Q&A explained that her cure for writer's block is to go and draw a picture on indulge in another creative output. Her attitude, in my opinion, is laidback and philisophical; in response to the question about writer's block she hypothesised that the block often occurs because you are going in the wrong direction so she'll veer off rather than try to crash through. As someone who is interested in writing and how people practice their craft, I found the writing responses and insights into her processes fascinating. Before the Q&A she read from Her Fearful Symmetry and I was delighted that she had chosen to read the chapter "The History of Her Ghost", as I had found it incredibly amusing (her dry sense of humour suiting the reading as well as being conveyed on the page).

Two of the most intriguing facts I learned on the night were 1) Her Fearful Symmetry was written in British English as opposed to Americanised English, which was far more difficult than she originally conceived; it was not just an issue of exchanging nouns as they have evolved into two differently spoken and written languages in terms of sentence structure; 2) She has not yet seen the film version of The Time Traveler's Wife (nor have I) and has no immediate plans to do so; she was not involved in the creative decision-making at all and was most upset that filming location was in Toronto instead of Chicago; she is clutching the film rights to her latest novel "to her bosom" for the time being and any future selling of the rights would depend on whether the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust (the charity who care for Highgate Cemetery) would be amenable to a film crew.

Said mention of Highgate Cemetery makes a appropriate segue into the second part of my Audrey Niffenegger event post; as mentioned yesterday, I was one of a handful of lucky winners of a Waterstone's loyalty cardholder's competition of a guided tour of Highgate Cemetery in North London, given by the author. To enter, one had to write why they should win and I remember vaguely saying that Audrey had given Neil Gaiman a tour of the cemetery when he was researching The Graveyard Book and that I wanted to walk in their footsteps and feel similarly inspired by the atmospheric and evocative cemetery; I may also have written something about the season being appropriate and contributing to the creepy and ghostly ambiance. All of which is true now that I have been. Our party was a small one of eight and was made up of four winners, two guests (including my friend), the representative of Waterstone's and one from Jonathan Cape; a photograph was taken of us with Audrey and I will link to that when I have the details but in the meantime here is Audrey as guide:


I had intended to visit Highgate Cemetery preferably before reading Her Fearful Symmetry; it certainly helps to imagine events in the novel now that I have seen them in person. The Noblin family mausoleum (Elspeth Noblin is a character who dies in the opening line of the novel and later returns as a ghost to the flat she has bequeathed to her twin nieces) of course does not exist but I could envisage its position, "just past Comfort's Corners, near the middle of the cemetery". So much of what Audrey Niffenegger learned as a tour guide of Highgate Cemetery, in the years she spent researching the novel has been weaved into it; much of what she has written, she incorporated into her tour narrative yesterday. As we were walking from site to site in the West Cemetery I chatted to my friend Rebecca about some of the things I had learned from the book (such as Highgate Cemetery being one of the "Magnificent Seven" cemeteries built in disparate London suburbs during the 1830s as a means to combat health concerns surrounding the inner-city overcrowded graveyards) only for Audrey to then repeat what I had plagiarised from her in the first place.

The Noblin family's mausoleum features "a bas-relief of a pelican feeding her young with her own blood, a symbol of the Resurrection"; this mythological symbol appears on the gravestone below and was the inspiration for the fictionalised burial site.


Christmas was three weeks away - but the cemetery was green. Highgate was full of holly bushes, sprouted from Victorian funeral wreaths. It was festive, if you could manage the mind-flip required to think about Christmas in a cemetery. As he tried to focus on the vicar's words he heard foxes calling to each other nearby.

Our famous guide pointed out a patch of holly and reasoned that it probably wasn't the best time of year to see or hear the foxes. As holly is incongruous in a graveyard so too are a blanket of daffodils, which Audrey informed us surround the Cedar of Lebanon that grows out of the dug-out Circle of Lebanon in Spring.


Trees are prolific in Highgate cemetery and roots are uncompromising and powerful; we heard (also mentioned in Her Fearful Symmetry) of two trees whose roots grew up and under a grave stone and lifted it off the ground. The cemetery still works as a Christian graveyard and parts of it, including the Egyptian Avenue, are listed buildings that have to be preserved; the Friends of Highgate Cemetery manage its neglect (they invented the term "Managed Neglect"), allowing it to at once evolve naturally whilst also keeping it safe. We took a slight detour because there were some dangerous trees being cut down whilst we were there. In Her Fearful Symmetry, the presence of Highgate Cemetery as a natural site and a living (excuse the oxy-moron) museum is well depicted.

We were able to enter the catacombs beneath the Victorian Terrace and it was so eerily cold; the coldness is evoked well in the novel, like a chill from a mortuary, "Robert fancied that cold emanated from the inside of the mausoleum, as though it were a fridge."

By far the most atmospheric part of the cemetery for me was the entrance to the Egyptian Avenue below, which looks anciently exotic. Egyptian because in the 1830s all things Egyptian were popular and it became one the most desirable locations for burial of the eminent deceased of Victorian society); some of the tomb doors even have the prior upmarket addresses of some of its inhabitants. The Circle of Lebanon was the most coveted area of the cemetery to be laid to rest and it is here that the writer Radclyffe Hall is interred with her first lover (her second lover was supposed to be buried with them but she died in Rome).



Skimming back through the parts of Her Fearful Symmetry about Highgate Cemetery it amazes me how much it exists there in the book to experience, to see, to hear, to sense; Audrey Niffenegger has personified Highgate Cemetery so that it is a character and the book is as much about the cemetery as it is any of the people connected to it.

In the chapter "A Tour of Highgate Cemetery", the twins Julia and Valentina are part of the guided tour given by Robert (their deceased aunt's partner and their neighbour, with whom they have not yet been formally introduced) and all of the graves they saw I saw (the Rosettis are buried in a claustrophobic space that we didn't visit). The Julius Beer mausoleum built purposefully to obstruct the view from the roof of the Terrace Catacombs that Victorian society promenaded on (as a Jewish, self-made foreigner, Beer was never accepted) was of particular interest especially as we were able to look inside to the bas-relief of marble angels that Beer commissioned when his daughter died. Below is a photograph of the Beer Mausoleum (it is huge) with Audrey walking away after locking the door.


The tour was a fabulous experience and Audrey Niffenegger was charming, engaging and thoroughly informative. I highly enjoyed myself and fully intend to go back to visit one day as well as the Eastern Cemetery which you can tour at your own pace and freedom (and where many famous novelists are buried and Karl Marx). I would definitely recommend booking the tour if you ever have the opportunity and please feel free to ask any questions as I haven't covered everything (Darlene, there were no animals except for a lovely robin and a dozen squirrels in Waterlow park).

This week will be somewhat monopolised by Audrey as my review of Her Fearful Symmetry is scheduled for tomorrow and another related post will follow at the weekend. Below is the first photograph I took upon entering the path into Highgate Cemetery with one of many Victorian symbols; this one shows an empty chair, the vacancy of which signifies death (surely the gravestone signifies that but the Victorians liked their symbolic memorials).




35 comments:

Marie said...

What a great post. Love the pictures and all the detail about your events!

farmlanebooks said...

Wonderful post! I am very jealous of your tour. I wanted to go to Highgate Cemetery before, but your post makes me want to book one right now!

Did AN just give you a tour or did she answer other questions about her books/writing etc? Did she seem really knowledgeable about the cemetery or did she have to refer to notes? Was she really friendly/chatty etc on the tour or did she act more like a tour guide?

Did you mention you were a blogger? If so how did she react? I have so many questions - sorry!

SFP said...

This was fascinating! Thank you for sharing your experience and your photos. I'm sure I'll be referring back to this post when I start Her Fearful Symmetry--I'm trying to hold off till the readathon since I still have a few reading commitments to get through first.

I had a chance to see AN just a few days after I started my blog five years ago. . . and I blew the opportunity. I doubt she ever comes back my way again. :(

JoAnn said...

What a wonderful post! Such fun to read and the pictures add so much! I love the term "managed neglect"... it seems so fitting. Looking forward to your review tomorrow.

softdrink said...

It's been years since I visited Highgate Cemetary, so thanks for the tour. :-)

And how wonderful to see the sites that inspired scenes from the book.

The back of HFS mentions that AN is a guide at Highgate...does she still give regualr tours, too, or does she only guide now for special events?

Paperback Reader said...

Thanks, Marie. I think it's been my longest post thus far.

Thanks, Jackie. It is a fabulous place to visit.

Just the tour and no real interaction in terms of her books/my blogging. I'm always wary of the reader/writer divide and hate to be intrusive (hence no major photographs of her) but that's just my personal preference. You can tell she is loyal to the cemetery and the FoHCt and their dictates. She has really done her research and was very knowledgeable in all areas (history/culture/day-to-day running). No notes, all of top of head; she obviously loves it and is very engaged and enthusiastic. She was chatty and shared anecdotes about the cemetery and previous tours she had given but it was apparent to me that it was very much about Highgate and not her/the novel (so non promotional). As far as I remember she mentioned HFS only once and I've mentioned that in post (the inspiration for the Noblin mausoleum) and I made all other connections.

Whilst walking around the Circle of Lebanon I noticed a tomb with the family name Swain (coincidentally my friend who accompanied me has the surname Swaine) and I asked whether they were any relation to the Swains of Swain Lane (the address of the cemetery); AN said that she had inquired about the same thing but they don't know but she stressed (on a couple of occasions) that there is so much to research about Highgate that an answer could eventually be found. I got the impression that she is completely fascinated by the scholarly side to HC, much as Robert in HFS is.

SFP, the photographs will help when trying to imagine it! The leafiness and vivid colours are dramatic.

I hope she does come your way again. This time last year I saw Toni Morrison at an event after having missed her in '99; I was so relieved and thankful that I had the opportunity again and hopefully the same will happen for you with AN.

Thanks, JoAnn. I didn't want to take too many photos (it seems disrespectful to the Highgate interred) but there are a few more that I didn't share that I may at some point. "Managed neglect" is a wonderful term and certainly fitting; AN pointed out parts were they did try to completely restore but stopped when they realised that it wasn't faithful to the intent/natural order.

Paperback Reader said...

Jill, you're welcome :). I think it is just for special events now but she gave tours over the years that she researched the book, which explains why she knows it so intimately. She did assure us that every tour is different!

kimbofo said...

It sounds wonderful, Claire.

I had a tour of the cemetery a few years back. Did she point out any particularly famous graves? The one that sticks in my mind was Radclyffe Hall, author of The Well of Loneliness.

Glad you mentioned the Magnificent Seven. Over the past few years I've been trying to visit each of the seven -- think I've been to them all bar Nunhead. Most people think I'm nuts when I tell them, but I think the cemeteries are fascinating.

Rachel said...

To say I am horribly jealous would be a big understatement! I am so glad you had a brilliant time. Highgate is wonderful on its own but with Audrey as your guide..well that's a whole new level of wonderful!

Thanks for the photos and I can't wait for your review of HFS- I hope you loved it!!

Molly said...

I think your pictures are just beautiful and truly capture the "gothic" landscape. Congratulations on winning such an amazing prize!

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

Wow, that sounds like such a fun time! Thanks for the photos and pots, it was really interesting to read.

Darlene said...

You made me laugh! I was so engrossed in your story and then I read about the animals, too funny! I'm so sorry now that I didn't bother venturing to the cemetery whilst in Hampstead last May, something to be rectified on my next visit. You've done a terrific job of helping me to imagine what it must be like there though. I hope copious amounts of warm drinks were consumed afterwards as it looked cold!

I flipped through a book once in a shop on Charing Cross Road that had stories of pets buried in Highgate Cemetery. In HFS didn't one of the girls say that animals weren't allowed to be buried there? Perhaps she meant in current times, any ideas?

Karen said...

What a wonderful, unique experience - thank you so much for sharing. I was disappointed that I was unable to make a trip to Highgate while I was in London recently - I would have really enjoyed that. I work as a grief counsellor and spend a lot of time in and/or talking about cemetries and I find them fascinating places of history and memory. After having read Her Fearful Symmetry I feel like I have been there in a way!

verity said...

That sounds like such an amazing experience Claire - and thanks for answering Jackie's questions about AN - very interesting!

Paperback Reader said...

Kim, she did point out famous graves (I mentioned Radclyffe Hall in post; that was the grave that stood out for me too and I took photographs); we were unable to see the plots for the Rosettis and Lizzie Siddal but AN told us all about them.

I would love to visit the magnificent seven too. Recently when I said that I wanted to visit Highgate Cemetery, a couple of family members couldn't understand why but I find graveyards fascinating and grounding.

Rachel, it was an amazing experience and I was very lucky. I'm still in awe that I actually had a tour by AN.

My review will follow later today...

Molly, thank you! It is very Gothic, isn't it? Dramatic and evocative.

Kim, I'm glad that you found it interesting to read.

Paperback Reader said...

Darlene, definitely add it to the itinerary for the next visit. HFS does a good job of making you envisage it but it is definitely worth seeing in person; it is an inspiring landmark. It has been colder of late but was relatively mild with the tree cover; I was wrapped up in winter jacket and hat but I was comfortable and relieved that it wasn't rain (the paths with the exposed roots and dirt that would become mud would be quite treacherous); the seasonal weather added to the atmosphere.

We were shown the grave of a prize-fighter whose funeral was the biggest Highgate had ever seen. On his grave is a stone dog (his pet dod; on top of a famous menagerist's grave there is his favourite, placid lion) and AN said that there were no pets buried in Highgate Cemetery but that may just be the West side.

Karen, AN evokes it well in HFS! It is great having your imaginings brought to life but maybe next time. I like in the novel that Jessica thinks of the cemetery primarily as a place for the loved ones/grave-owners, which brings home that it remains a place of memory and loss and could never be touristy or gimmicky (very much a relief).

Verity, you're welcome. I forgot to mention the anecdote that AN shared of one time she gave a tour and there was a couple who were obviously on a date and the woman was wearing strappy high-heels; sensible footwear is a must and AN told her so but the woman was adamant and I think was in some pain afterwards and probably ruined her shoes.

Rachel said...

Regarding Darlene's post about the pets - I am pretty certain that pets weren't (and still aren't) allowed to be buried on consecrated ground because of the belief that they don't have souls. So I doubt there would be any pets buried there.

I don't remember any mention of pets in my tour of Highgate.

Paperback Reader said...

Well, AN definitely said that there were no pets in both the tour and the book.

kimbofo said...

Woops, I missed that reference. Sorry. I plead excessive tiredness and a ratty cold. ;)

Paperback Reader said...

It's okay, Kim; it is a loooong post. Hope you feel better soon.

Bloomsbury Bell said...

Oh I am so jealous - sounds amazing. I am going with Rachel next week and am VERY excited although we won't have the fabulous tour guide that you had.

Paperback Reader said...

Naomi, you and Rachel are still guaranteed to have an amazing time! Enjoy!

farmlanebooks said...

Thanks for explaining it. It is a shame that she wasn't a bit more chatty about herself and the book, but at least you had a good time.

I'm looking forward to your review now.

Paperback Reader said...

Jackie, I had a fabulous time; I think that she is quite reserved or certainly was in this situation.

I've posted my review :).

savidgereads said...

Oh that tour sounds fabulous, I am quite quite envious of you and all the fun you must of had there. I was there with her at the book launch but as it was so late and dark we didnt get a sneak around sadly!

Though if things go the way they might a certain book blogger maybe guiding there before long. Can't think who that could be?

Paperback Reader said...

Ooh, I wonder who that could be?! That would be fabulous; it is an amazing place to spend time in.

verity said...

Hehe, I like the shoe anecdote :) I am the girl who ruined a pair of stiletto boots by walking across the beach in them in June this year...

Paperback Reader said...

I very seldom wear heels any more (although I do have some beautiful pairs) but I can imagine the pain, the destruction, and the damage I would do to myself with all of those tree roots across the paths. Impracticality of the highest degree.

Andrew Blackman said...

I live nearby and love visiting Highgate Cemetery. Didn't realise it featured in this book - I'll have to check it out. Thanks for the great description!

Paperback Reader said...

Hi Andrew, thank you for commenting. You are welcome for the description; living near it you must know it well! I hope you enjoy the book if you do check it out.

Danielle said...

Another post I'll be bookmarking. How totally cool that you were able to do this. What a memorable event. Many thanks for sharing the photos--they couldn't come at a better time. I had no idea what the cemetery looked like and now I have an idea in mind!

Paperback Reader said...

Danielle, glad that I could help! I had looked at photographs online to begin with but it was wonderful to experience it in person.

Jodie said...

Lucky you for winning that prize, somethign to remember for ever.

Tracey said...

I loved this post - what a wonderful experience! Highgate cemetery is on my list of places to visit - it sounds fascinating. And sounds like you had the perfect guide! Thanks so much for taking the time to share it.

Paperback Reader said...

Jodie, I can't believe my luck! I won't forget it.

Tracey, you're welcome :). I definitely recommend visiting Highgate Cemetery as it is an amazing place and I would take it over any of the tourist attractions every time.