Her Fearful Symmetry

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.”



A History of Highgate Cemetery:

“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.

Table Details:

Plates- Sophia by Ralph Lauren/ HomeGoods

Chargers/Party City

Flatware/World Market


Napkins/Pier 1


“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

Thank you for your visit, I’m joining:

  31 comments for “Her Fearful Symmetry

  1. October 25, 2011 at 5:48 am

    Mary, you nailed it with your photography. This spooky post is spectacular!

  2. Judy R
    October 25, 2011 at 5:56 am

    I too have read that book and you brought it all back to me. The words from the book go wonderfully with your tablescape and the other pictures you presented. A very good and ‘disturbing’ tablescape and post.

  3. Happier Than A Pig in Mud
    October 25, 2011 at 6:19 am

    Nice spooky pics Mary! Love the skull bottle stopper and cute(?) cupcakes:@)

  4. October 25, 2011 at 8:01 am

    I love that image of the smoke rising from the candleholder! Those cupcakes are to die for! (hehe!)

  5. October 25, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    You are too much. You have me shaking my head in admiration EVERY post! This is spooktacular….I know that is SO overused:):) I want to live in your head for a onth! Happy (almost) Halloween!!!! XO, pinky

  6. October 25, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    Your tablescape is a perfect setting for this book review….Love the blood red goblets among all that black and white… Spookily elegant and not at all the usual kitsch associated with Halloween….The information on the cemetery is interesting….I had read about it when I was doing some research a long time ago, but you give more details.

  7. October 25, 2011 at 8:53 pm

    Spooky and I love it. Your tablescape, and the art work on the book, make me think of Edward Gorey’s illustrations… as I do around Halloween time. Great post!

  8. October 25, 2011 at 11:16 pm

    Mary, you even do spooky! This was a great post! ~ Sarah

  9. October 26, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    Great post.. loved learning about the cemetery too. Wow. Great table..okay have to say it – Creepily Spooktacular! love the glasses and the votives and the centerpieces.. they remind me of the trees in the cemetery. Amazing. xo marlis

  10. October 26, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    Beautiful spooky! You are very talented.

  11. October 26, 2011 at 9:38 pm

    You really did your homework, Mary, and this post put me in mind of the classic Vincent Price movie, “Pemature Burial”! I was scared for days after I saw it. LOL!

    You just thought of everything for your table, and I love the ravens perched in the tree branches. Those are great (and handy) tall vases by the way.

    I grew up with a cemetery in a pasture behind our house, and we used to picnic on one tomb in particular. There were iron gates and some sunken graves. I never went there at night. Eeeeeeee!

    Happy Tablescape Thursday to you…



  12. October 26, 2011 at 11:25 pm

    C R E E P Y table!!! The red goblets add just the perfect touch.

    – The Tablescaper

  13. October 27, 2011 at 12:38 am

    FABULOUS! I love the tall sticks with ravens in the vases and the pop of the blood red goblets is striking! Terrific pic with the smoke risng from one of those wonderfully etched candle-holders. Pairing the tablescape with the notes from the book is very creative and adds to the drama of both!


  14. October 27, 2011 at 1:01 am

    I love your tablescape! So festive, and that pop of red from the goblets!
    those cupcakes are so fun! Great post!
    Rainey @ the Project table

  15. October 27, 2011 at 10:52 am

    Oh goodness, Mary, your table and the various photographs with it are amazing. The black/ white/gray with the touch of red is just perfect.
    What I loved most this time was reading what went along with it. Fascinating!!

    I had been told by my mom that you had done a fabulous job with this post This is the first chance I’ve had to come looking.

  16. October 27, 2011 at 11:39 am

    What a spooktacular tablescape!

    I created a mad scientists lab this past Monday. I hope you’ll come by for a peek and shriek. :)

  17. October 27, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    Great macabre table…the splash of blood red seems so appropriate! Your photography skills leave me in awe.
    I can’t wait to find this book…
    Have a great weekend, Mary.

  18. October 27, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    I forgot to mention that the cupcakes are fabulous!

  19. October 27, 2011 at 3:15 pm

    oh you make me yearn for the good ole days, BRAVO TO YOU! what a super job… and you cupcakes, best i have seen, clever girl! i love to see you play with your books and food, its pure art/candy for me!

  20. October 27, 2011 at 3:52 pm

    The story of the cemetery would give anyone the heebie-jeebies – especially the part about being buried with bells in case you’re still alive.

    Fabulous photos – veddy spooky!

  21. October 27, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    Loved the eerie story of the graveyards in London and how High Gate came to be. The table setting is elegantly reminiscent of Dracula…beautiful and haunting. The cupcakes are perfect for Halloween.

  22. October 27, 2011 at 9:09 pm

    IOh how spooky your table is! Picture perfect — love the pops of red goblets.

  23. October 28, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    I just looked through some more of your posts and I am so very much impressed — especially by this table based on the great book. Perfection! Needless to say that I have signed up for email notifications of your blog posts, as I don’t want to miss any in future. :)

  24. October 28, 2011 at 6:40 pm

    Mary, I am such a big scaredy cat! I wanted to read that after Time Traveler’s but knew it would be too spooky for me. Your table is delightful, full of the macabre with a lovely shock of red, here and there. I loved seeing your food playing up the whole feel of it. You are so very clever and I enjoyed every single bit of this post. Happy Halloween!

  25. October 29, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    This is a fun treat! LOVE the bottle stoppers, and the centerpiece is fabulous! Those cupcakes couldn’t be cuter if they tried!!! What a neat idea!!!

  26. October 29, 2011 at 7:18 pm

    I just saw your post on Seasonal Sundays. What a great post! Everything is sheer perfection! You have captured the tale beautifully!!

  27. October 29, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    Wonderful spooky post. Great photography. Very clever! Happy Halloween!

  28. FABBY
    October 30, 2011 at 11:32 am

    Oh my goodness, what a great table with the most fabulous details, this is a stunning display of Halloween at it’s best along with yummy stuff too! Thank you for sharing I’ve enjoyed it so much. Happy Halloween. FABBY

  29. November 3, 2011 at 11:01 pm

    Looking forward to seeing your contribution to Seasonal Sundays this Sunday.

    – The Tablescaper

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