What’s with the Women Buried in Highgate Cemetery?

One cold morning in London, 2015, I had no classes and decided to take my depleted self to Highgate Cemetery. It would be a cocktail of pleasure and utility, as I wanted to volunteer there and perhaps write about the place. Whether to continue a book on women authors and censorship or try something different was on my mind. And the creative nonfiction I was reading was replete with context and wonderful descriptions, by authors who’d written themselves into their books. Maybe Highgate could prove a rich realm for my own mixture of vignette, memoir and digression—a “sparkling” little book about the Cemetery and the Victorian way of death. Setting my sights on creating something “sparkly,” was misguided—I knew that—but I was a recovering academic, with an itch to write something with a bit of life to it. Poor cemetery to carry the brunt of such expectations.

Off I went. All doubts as to whether I was floating a nowhere idea were carefully squelched so that I could  dwell in possibility. On arrival, I ducked into the admissions kiosk. The volunteer in charge was elderly and abstracted, with sentences that bubbled on and trailed off. He sold me a guidebook for a “fiver” and warned about frightful traffic on the road between the East and West cemeteries. I made a mental note to think about coming back with my tape recorder and interviewing him. While marking time until my tour in the West Cemetery, I walked around the East. Highgate is an “active” cemetery and there were recent graves. I gave poor marks to one adorned with a kitschy figurine of two children, arms entwined—and then noticed it was a child’s grave and felt small. Further along, was a photo of a man too young to be dead, his face exposed and oddly naked as he looked straight into the camera. The flowers on his grave indicated a loss that felt fresh. Karl Marx’s slab-like monument lay down the main path, but I’d seen it before and the newish graves had unsettled me. I made for the old section with its mournful angels, monuments entangled in buckled earth and vein-like roots, and romantic landscapes in which death with all its sadness was in the past—Victorian death weathered into heritage.

I exited, waving at the volunteer who had hunkered down in a knit cap that covered his ears. In crossing the road, I easily evaded death and dismemberment as no car went by at all. Then through tall and ornate metal gates to join a group gathered in the chapel and meet our guide. He was a white-haired, genial story-teller. I’ll call him George as I didn’t catch his name. George was warming us up with the cemetery’s pre-history, when bodies in the City of London were stacked like cordwood, swapped out and disposed of quickly, or dumped in the Thames, when he had to  break off mid-thought as someone at the gate kept calling “yoo-hoo.”  He let her in, fetched someone for her from the other side, and began again. The amateurism was rather charming.

Inside, it was like being in a giant terrarium or a lost world, cold and grey with unnaturally green moss. What would it be like under blue skies? The path wended its way through tombstones held captive by encroaching tree roots and vegetation. Highgate is the Angkor Watt of England. Once privately owned and cared for battalions of gardeners, it went bankrupt, was padlocked, and became unkempt. A Friends Trust was formed and today volunteers tend this great cemetery as a “preserved ruin.” It’s a conservation choice and anyway, the Friends can’t afford manicured vistas. Its pretty quiet now as opposed to the mid-1950s to the 1970s when Hammer Films shot horror films along the paths and vampire hunters scaled the walls and desecrated mausoleums.

I scribbled notes, distracted by inscriptions on monuments and the gender questions they brought up. The tombs belonged to men; most were inscribed with a male name, and then perhaps his profession, contributions, or attributes (he was an architect, a benefactor, talented, etc…). I searched in vain for similar identifiers attached to females. Women were usually tucked into their husband’s grave and simply listed as “wife of.” Monuments for women alone had inscriptions characterizing them as wives, daughters, and sisters. Their circumscribed positions in life were their epitaphs.

I began to listen selectively for anything about gender. George said that respectable Victorian women didn’t go to their loved one’s internment ceremonies—it was too much for their sensibilities.  In the funeral cortege they could be represented by an empty carriage, their card on the seat. George interpreted Victorian symbols for us. A stone pagoda with a chair inside was a symbol of a young person and the cloth resting on it was a shroud. Pagoda, chair and cloth may have symbolized that the family took care of the young female member in life, and then, in death. Victorian symbols and their messages are now refracted through different lens. I read their inscriptions of the natural order as evidence of rampant gender discrimination.

It was men’s graves and the stories behind them that were idiosyncratic. A mastiff crouched on top of the tomb of Thomas Sayers, a scrappy bare-knuckle fighter. Sayers’s last fight, against a gigantic American, was attended by Dickens and declared a draw after 39 brutal rounds. When Sayers died, friends paid for a tomb and 10,000-100,000 people joined in the cortege: Sayers in the front carriage, his faithful dog in the second, and his wife in the third. I wasn’t sure what kind of a statement that was.

George would stop at particular tombs to make this or that point. Like the Means family obelisk which had recently been spruced up. Its freshened facade reminds that the original cemetery would have been a sea of white marble. No trees. He showed us a jumble of stone where a World War II bomb had hit. I react like a hunting dog with prey in sight to any mention of bomb damage—it’s cultural destruction and silencing. There was a lot of silencing in this cemetery as well as jockeying for status. But then cemeteries often reveal a lot about the societies that create them.

There are around 55,000 graves in the cemetery, and perhaps 133,000 people buried in them. George is in the process of creating a database of tomb occupants which might not be completed in his life time. I asked him if there were any plans to photograph the monuments and collect inscriptions as some were in danger of being lost. “No,” he said. At the end of the tour, I suggested that Highgate’s inscriptions seemed to be within the scope of UNESCO’s Endangered Archives programs. I didn’t have time to say that it might be a way to get resources to expand and complete his database. Having pictures of the monuments and their inscriptions would allow them to be “read” by genealogists, historians, sociologists, writers, and women’s studies researchers. It was all so clear to me. However, I was shepherded firmly out the gate and left to wonder if George had caught the idea.

Half frozen, I left the cemetery and sped through the adjoining park.  I couldn’t resist snapping pictures of a gorgeous pond, with its reflections of the drooping branches.  Ducks set off ripples and the banks hosted ultra-white sea birds and fat and complacent multi-colored pigeons—in their own way as extraordinary as the cemetery. The double-decker bus I took through some pretty dreary areas was enlivened by school girls in green pleated skirts with cell phones who got on together, and then were spewed forth one by one. A charmer (with hair gathered into a huge bushy bunch) jumped off the bus crying “au revoir, Amigos.” Bus 4 dropped me at the edge of City University where I had two cups of peppermint tea and went to my creative nonfiction class, where my amigos were.

The trip served as an epiphany. I returned to my research on women writers with a deep sense that they were neutralized by Victorian gender constraints while alive and censored into womanly conformity after death (witness the inscriptions). Cemeteries would yield compelling insights into silencing processes. The end result was Nevertheless, They Wrote: Women, Writing and Suppression—a manuscript in search of an agent and editor. As well, I became a volunteer at the cemetery and my domain was the East Side kiosk, every Friday afternoon for a year until my student visa expired. It turned out that at least three of my women authors had deep connections to the cemetery. I was even allowed into Radclyffe Hall’s mausoleum.

Highgate is the loveliest, eeriest, richest place I know and if I were younger, I would do a degree in Victorian studies, and use Highgate as a basis for a study on inscriptions. I would record and preserve fading inscriptions and research female invisibility as etched in stone.  

Edith Wharton and “Terminus”

American Edith Wharton was born a blueblood. In what was experienced as a fairly wretched childhood, she may have been sexually abused—her unpublished “The Beatrice Palmato “ is a startling explicit account of incest between father and daughter.  She barely survived young adulthood. A reluctant and shy debutant, she contracted a passionless marriage of convenience and then spent twelve years chronically nauseous and fatigued. Her hovering mother, shallow husband, and rigid social life seemed to make her sick. Certainly, sleeping in the same room with her husband set off asthma attacks, and sometimes her nerves broke down completely. And yet, against the odds, the inhibited young woman began to write complex novels and threw off victimhood. She gained control of her life, put her husband in another bedroom, and distanced herself from her mother and toxic social environments. She fell in love with Europe and the freedom and intellectual stimulation she found there. While seemingly a conventional Edwardian, often photographed corseted and draped in pearls, fur, and silk, Wharton was quietly rebelling against her family, country, American high society, and empty hours. She read, wrote, travelled adventurously, and collected friends.

Eventually, she met an entirely unsuitable man—the elusive, bi-sexual, and philandering journalist Morton Fullerton. He would surface; she adored him, but then he would drop out of sight. While quite taken with her, Fullerton had a louche nature and moved from woman to woman.  Months of stolen meetings left Wharton euphoric and yet fearful: the cost of opening herself up could be high, and she worried about the possibility of scandal and blackmail, and, no small issue, what the servants would think.

Finally, in 1909, Wharton leapt and found an unlikely secret place to meet her lover, in the interstices of her life, while in transit, sans servants. Their rendezvous was in an unromantic Victorian terminal hotel, which fronted a London railway station with six platforms. The Charing Cross Hotel had been a place to catch or meet a train and break a journey since Victorian times.  In dingy Room 91, something rather extraordinary happened. Forty- five year old Wharton became a “sensual heroine” and made passionate love for perhaps the first time. And as she lay in her lover’s arms, she felt profoundly connected to humanity, to travelers who had also loved in just this kind of place. Out of the experience, she wrote the poem “Terminus”:

…And lying there hushed in your arms, as the waves of rapture receded,
And far down the margin of being we heard the low beat of the soul,
I was glad as I thought of those others, the nameless, the many,
Who perhaps thus had lain and loved for an hour on the brink of the world,
Secret and fast in the heart of the whirlwind of travel,…

Fullerton proved faithless and Wharton, a tough-minded realist, broke off the affair. But she gained from the experience and never forgot: “I have drunk the wine of life at last,” she confided in her diary. “I have known the thing best worth knowing, I have been warmed through and through never to grow quite cold again until the end…” She thereafter wrote of love from personal experience and went on to live a brave and spirited life. She divorced, relocated to France permanently, wrote more novels, and created beautiful gardens; she entertained and proved a loyal friend. She was decorated by the French government for her philanthropic initiatives in World War I.

Though Wharton lived long and well, habits of reticence persisted and she wrote a supremely innocuous autobiography. Then unfortunately, her executors served her poorly. She was portrayed as vapid and shallow in their commemorations and by her first biographer. This image stuck. But Wharton had preserved the “Love Diary” in which she had poured her responses to Fullerton, and this and other papers finally came out of archival embargo. In the 1980s, 22 letters Wharton had written to Fullerton (and demanded back to no avail) mysteriously surfaced. Biographers could use primary documents and probe deeper. They challenged existing images and created new portraits in which Wharton emerged as a strong and powerful woman. Her life was given a triumphal spin (as opposed to many women of her era who were denied a hero’s journey or positive developmental arc).  Wharton’s life, uncensored, demonstrated a full range of womanly possibilities: she was a survivor who dared to embrace life, chose, and achieve.

You can read more about Wharton when I find an agent and publisher for my manuscript Nevertheless, They Wrote: Women, Writing, and Suppression.

Emily Dickinson had to have curls. Radclyffe Hall could not.

Women authors often had lifelong struggles with notions of femininity which denied them voice. After death their letters, diaries, manuscripts, and images were censored to downplay their intellectual eminence or literary success in the interests of correct gender portrayal. Hall couldn’t be seen as feminine and Dickinson as unfeminine or too eccentric.

A nineteenth-century portrait of five-year old Marguerite Radclyffe Hall by Katinka Amyat, shows a pretty child with long curls, holding her namesake flowers. After an inheritance allowed Hall to embrace Savile Row suits and a severe haircut, she dropped the name Marguerite and restyled herself Radclyffe Hall. She took up with woman lovers and, in 1926, wrote The Well of Loneliness. This highly moral book drew attention to an invisible minority, lesbians. Hall wrote of a doomed love affair between two women, one a homosexual (–in the language of the times, an “invert”). She pleaded: “Acknowledge us, oh God, before the whole world. Give us also the right to our existence!” After a high profile court case, the book was banned and Hall emerged as the icon of female homosexuality.

When the author died in 1943, she left her considerable wealth to life partner Una Troubridge, who set out to advance Hall’s cause, the normalization of lesbianism. Una blackmailed Hall’s impoverished mother into parting with the Amyat portrait and had Marguerite’s girlish curls painted over. Her lover had to look like a little boy, an invert whose masculinity was congenital and present even in childhood. There couldn’t be curls.


On the other hand, there had to be curls for Emily Dickinson. The poet was possessed of genius, passion, and creativity in a mid-nineteenth century world in which these qualities were unacceptable in women. Her poems were “edited” posthumously to appear conventional; tough and original Emily was rendered stereotypically feminine to conform with the nineteenth-century Romantic vision of women poets as tortured and delicate.

The family was leery about publishing the only extant photograph of Emily, a daguerreotype done in 1846 or 1847. The Dickinson family disliked this image of sixteen-year old Emily, pale and thin, with alert eyes and a facial structure of a kangaroo.[i]  In 1894, as Emily became a public figure, Lavinia Dickinson had the head and shoulders of the daguerreotype re-photographed and hired an artist to feminize her dead sister’s image, using the model of a pretty magazine portrait. A ruffled collar filled in the neck and curls drawn on Emily’s forehead made her face less exposed and severe. As a biographer points out: “The girl’s level gaze and sensuous, almost swollen lips are toned down to a faintly smiling sweetness.”[ii] While a childlike feminine affect was acceptable, strangeness laced with sexuality was not.

It’s now possible to compare original and doctored images and see how two passionate women who made the radical choice to write were posthumously retrofitted. You will be able to learn why their images were doctored and read about them and other censored women writers when my manuscript, Nevertheless, They Wrote: Women, Writing and Suppression, finds an agent and publisher.

[i] Gordon, Lyndall. Lives like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds. New York: Penguin Books. 2010, 274.

[ii] Gordon, Lyndall. Lives like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds. New York: Penguin Books. 2010, 274.