Falling Angels chronicles the lives of two girls whose families own adjacent plots in a London cemetery—one decorated with a sentimental angel, the other with an elaborate urn. During a ceremonial stroll through the graveyard grounds, an act of mourning for the recently deceased Queen Victoria, Maude Coleman and Lavinia Waterhouse meet, forging a fast friendship.
Despite their distinct personality differences, Maude being more precocious and contemplative and Lavinia leaning to the impulsive and dramatic, the girls are instantly drawn to each other to the dismay of their mothers. Despite being neighbors, Kitty Coleman and Gertrude Waterhouse occupy different positions in the British class system—the Waterhouses are lower-middle class, while the Colemans are upper-middle class, with a larger house and garden, and live-in servants. The women have little in common, and their views on the changing political climate fall on opposite ends of the spectrum. Kitty looks forward to a more modern society, while the Gertrude reveres the late Queen Victoria and clings to Victorian traditions.
The death of Queen Victoria marked the end of an era. Britain emerged from the shadows of oppressive Victorian values to a more liberal Edwardian lifestyle. With these relaxed social standards came other advances—one of which was the growing interest in the women’s suffragist movement, a topic that divides Kitty and Gertrude, as it did many women of the era. As with most periods of political turmoil, the fight for the right of women to vote had its own victim of change, as felt by both families.
A poignant tale of two families brought reluctantly together, Falling Angels is an intimate story of childhood friendships, sexual awakening and human frailty. Yet its epic sweep takes in the changing of a nation, the fight for women’s suffrage and the questioning of steadfast beliefs.
ABOUT TRACY CHEVALIER
“I was born and grew up in Washington, DC. After getting a BA in English from Oberlin College (Ohio), I moved to London, England in 1984. I intended to stay 6 months; I’m still here.
“As a kid I’d often said I wanted to be a writer because I loved books and wanted to be associated with them. I wrote the odd story in high school, but it was only in my twenties that I started writing ‘real’ stories, at night and on weekends. Sometimes I wrote a story in a couple evenings; other times it took me a whole year to complete one.
“Once I took a night class in creative writing, and a story I’d written for it was published in a London-based magazine calledFiction. I was thrilled, even though the magazine folded 4 months later.
I worked as a reference book editor for several years until 1993 when I left my job and did a year-long MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich (England). My tutors were the English novelists Malcolm Bradbury and Rose Tremain. For the first time in my life I was expected to write every day, and I found I liked it. I also finally had an idea I considered ‘big’ enough to fill a novel. I began The Virgin Blue during that year, and continued it once the course was over, juggling writing with freelance editing.
“An agent is essential to getting published. I found my agent Jonny Geller through dumb luck and good timing. A friend from the MA course had just signed on with him and I sent my manuscript of The Virgin Blue mentioning my friend’s name. Jonny was just starting as an agent and needed me as much as I needed him. Since then he’s become a highly respected agent in the UK and I’ve gone along for the ride.”
“Entirely successful: distinct, inhabited, vivid and real.”
—The Washington Post Book World
“Chevalier’s ringing prose is as radiantly efficient as well-tended silver.”
“Evokes entire landscapes…A master of voices.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Chevalier not only authentically details the social mores, tensions, and contradictions, she writes the book we want to read.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“A highly accomplished work that brings to life a time of radically shifting social, sexual, and political paradigms.”
—The Boston Globe
AN INTERVIEW WITH TRACY CHEVALIER
What inspired you to set Falling Angels in post-Victorian England? Is there something in particular about the Victorian era that interests you?
I set the book when I did because I am interested in periods of change, of shifting from one set of values to another, and the fall-out that results. More specifically though, I knew I wanted to set the book in Highgate Cemetery, a famous Victorian cemetery in north London. It was a magnificent, beautifully kept place, but is now crumbling and overgrown, and I was interested in when and why things changed there. It seemed to me that such a change in attitudes to death and mourning reflected a broader change in society. I pinpointed the time when the cemetery’s fortunes began to shift to the first years of the twentieth century, and so I set the novel then.
What type of research was necessary to tell this story?
I spent several years doing volunteer work at the cemetery—helping with a gardening group and giving tours. Any readers who have been on a tour of the cemetery may have had me as their guide and not realized it! The rest of the book is set near by in the neighborhood I live in, so I got to know it’s history as well. I also read a lot of books about Victorian mourning and rituals and the planning and maintenance of cemeteries, as well as histories of the suffragette movement, and of Victorian and Edwardian house styles.
Did you know how Falling Angels was going to end before you wrote the story, or did the ending become clear as you were writing?
I knew something of an ending—e.g. what would happen to Kitty—but not everything. It was only as I was writing that it became clear what would happen to Ivy May. Actually, I knew from the start some of what happens beyond the ending—originally the book was meant to go through 1918. I may have to write a sequel to get it out of my system!
Of Maude, Lavinia, Kitty, and Gertrude, with whom do you identify most?
Maude, I think. In most books, I tend to identify with the character who learns the most, and I think she does. Of the minor characters I have a soft spot for the cook, Dorothy Baker. She doesn’t say much, but when she does, it’s forceful.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing a novel about some medieval tapestries that hang in the Cluny museum in Paris called the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. It’s set in fifteenth-century Paris and Brussels and is about why and how the tapestries were made, and the effect they had on everyone who worked on them.
- Chevalier alternates the narrative point of view to reveal the layered complexities of characters, events, and issues. Which character’s perspectives were the most revealing? Which characters do you relate to the most? How does having so many characters affect how you perceive the story?
- The turn of the century found England in a state of transition. How did the death of Queen Victoria signify a new era, a more modern climate? How do the conflicting opinions on death and mourning define the characters? In what ways do these differing attitudes indicate the social changes to come?
- When the Waterhouses and Colemans first meet in the cemetery, what do the characters’ first impressions of each other—and of the other family’s grave ornament—expose about themselves?
- How do the issues the female characters face differ with those women are facing now, a century later? What obstacles still exist? How might this story differ if it were set now?
- While the entries from the male characters are concise and limited in number, these narratives reveal a good deal about their impressions of their wives, their neighbors, and other individuals and events. Discuss the various excerpts “penned” by Albert Waterhouse, Richard Coleman, and Simon Field. Which of these characters relates best to his female counterparts? Do they all view women in a similar way?
- The peripheral characters of Jenny Whitby, Simon Field, and Dorothy Baker play key roles in several events. How do these individuals affect the lives of the Colemans and the Waterhouses?
- The cemetery is a curious place to set a novel. On the one hand, it mirrors the outside world, with rigid rules of conduct that mourners are expected to follow. On the other hand, both children and adults experience a degree of freedom there. How does the making and breaking of rules there reflect on and affect the characters?
- Lavinia, Simon, and Maude appear to represent the past, present, and future respectively. Does this change at all throughout the novel? Do they learn from each other?
- What is Ivy May Waterhouse’s role in the book? Why does she meet such a fate?
- They say and Englishman’s home is his castle. How do Kitty’s and Gertrude’s houses reflect their characters and class differences?
- Does this book have a heroine? If so, who is it?
- None of the characters is perfect—all have their flaws and irritations. Does this help or hinder the narrative?
The Victorian Celebration of Death by James Stevens Curl (2001)
Death in the Victorian Family by Pat Jalland (1996)
The English Way of Death by Julian Litten (2002)
Emmeline Pankhurst by Jane Purvis (2002)
Edwardian House Style: An Architectural and Interior Design Source Book by Hilary Hockman (2002)
- www.tchevalier.com—the section on Falling Angels—there is a lot of information there on suffragettes, Victorian mourning customs, etc…
- www.highgate-cemetery.org—the official site for the Highgate Cemetery, where Falling Angels is set
- www.myk.mcmail.com/london/highgate_cemetery/index.htm—an unofficial site, but very good photographs of Highgate Cemetery.