The past couple of weeks I’ve offered up Halloween Treats & practiced my potions stirring up some Witches’ Brew in anticipation of Halloween.
This week I’m digging up some literary inspiration for a table from a ghostly tale set at Highgate Cemetery in London. . .
Her Fearful Symmetry *** by Audrey Niffenegger
“Her Fearful Symmetry, a haunting tale about the complications of love, identity, and sibling rivalry~ opens with the death of Elspeth Noblin, who bequeaths her London flat and its contents to the twin daughters of her estranged twin sister back in Chicago. These 20-year-old dilettantes, Julie and Valentina, move to London, eager to try on a new experience like one of their obsessively matched outfits. Historic Highgate Cemetery, which borders Elspeth’s home, serves as an inspired setting as the twins become entwined in the lives of their neighbors. Niffenegger brings these quirky, troubled characters to marvelous life, but readers may need their own supernatural suspension of disbelief as the story winds to its twisty conclusion.”
“The gravestones turned white and seemed to be edged with silver; they hovered, tooth-like amid the ivy.”
“Highgate Cemetery was dense with dripping trees slushy gravel paths. Crows flew from graves to low branches, circled and landed on the roof of the Dissenters’ chapel, which was now the cemetery’s’ office.”
“He liked Highgate Cemetery best at night. At night there were no visitors, no weeds to pull, no enquiries from journalists—there was only the cemetery itself, spread out in the moonlight like a soft grey hallucination, a stony wilderness of Victorian melancholy.”
“. . .a dense clamour of large, tilting graves, crowded and encroached on by trees and greenery.”
“Beyond the wall, Highgate Cemetery spread before them, vast and chaotic. Because they were on a hill, they might have seen quite far down into the cemetery, but the density of the trees prevented this, the branches were bare, but they formed a latticework that confused the eye.”
“Hundreds of crows rose into the air as one. Even through the closed window they could hear the rush of wings.”
“In the early decades of the nineteenth century London was facing a major crisis. Inadequate burial space along with a high mortality rate resulted in a serious problem – not enough room for the dead. 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. Quicklime was often thrown over the body to help speed decomposition, so that within a few months the grave could be used again. The smell from these disease-ridden burial places was terrible. They were overcrowded, uncared for and neglected.”
“The cause of this situation was that in the early 1800s London had a population of just one million people. In the following years the population had increased rapidly and the death rate along with it. Very little new burial space had been put aside to cater for the growing numbers and by the early 1830s the authorities were stating that for public health reasons something had to be done.”
Parliament passed a statute to the effect that seven new private cemeteries should be opened in the countryside around the capital for the burial of London’s dead. Among the seven was Highgate which opened in 1839.
“Highgate attracted a varied clientele and over the next twenty years became one of the capital’s most fashionable cemeteries. In 1854 the London Cemetery Company was so profitable that the cemetery was extended by a further twenty acres on the other side of its Swain’s Lane site. This new ground, now known as the East Cemetery, was opened in 1856. A tunnel beneath Swain’s Lane connected the new ground with the Church of England chapel in the older (West) side. With the aid of a hydraulic lift, coffins would descend into the tunnel and remain on cemetery ground for their passage to the other half of the cemetery.”
Karl Marx is arguably the most famous occupant in the east cemetery. Other famous interments can be found here.
“A crow flew close over their heads and swooped across the courtyard, landing on the apex of the chapels’ roof.”
“Before modern technology, people had a difficult time determining when someone was really dead. You might think that death would be pretty blatant, but there were a number of famous cases in which a dead body sat up and went on living, and many Victorians got the jim-jams just thinking about the possibility of being buried alive.”
“The Victorians invented a system of bells with strings attached that went through the ground and into the coffin, so if you woke up underground you could pull on your bell til someone came to dig you up.”
“The churchyards were also a health hazard. They contaminated the groundwater and caused epidemics of typhoid and cholera. Since there was no space for more graves, corpses had to be disinterred so that the newly dead could be buried. If you’ve read your Dickens, you know what I’m talking about: elbows poking out of the ground, grave robbers stealing the dead to sell them to medical schools.”
A little graveyard cupcake inspiration~ chocolate wafer earth & Pepperidge Farm Milano cookie headstones.
Plates- Sophia by Ralph Lauren/ HomeGoods
“Bewitching…Lovers of Niffenegger’s past work should rejoice… Her Fearful Symmetry is as atmospheric and beguiling as a walk through Highgate itself.”
– Susann Cokal, New York Times Book Review