Vaughn Entwistle on writing about Victorian London for The Angel of Highgate

Friday, November 27th 2015

Out early December from Titan Books.

AngelHighgate

Why I love To Write About Victorian London

By Vaughn Entwistle

To write about Victorian England, and “the great smoke” (London) in particular is to follow in the footsteps of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s greatest creation, Sherlock Holmes. First described in graphic detail in the novels of Charles Dickens and then made notorious by the grisly deeds of Jack the Ripper, the image of web cobblestone streets, poorly lit by gas lamps suffocating beneath dense fog, is forever seared into the public imagination. As an author I find it interesting that fiction has done more to define our image of Victorian London than any amount of fact.

Although I have written in various genres and eras, the era remains a favourite milieu of mine. Fiction writers are always looking for drama and Victorian London has it in spades. The England of the matronly, unsmiling monarch was simultaneously the acme of industrial progress, the capitol of finance and the seat of a sprawling Empire. And while Victorian London embodied the modern, it remained shackled to its soot-smudged historical past. Foreign visitors as diverse as Leon Trotsky and Gustave Dore described the city as a medieval mazework of narrow and meandering streets, skewered by modern straight thoroughfares and the shiny steel tracks of newly constructed railways. In a European nation where revolution never took hold, the monarchy endured and the aristocracy flourished. Thus England retained its class system with all its implicit moral contradictions. The upper classes resided in palaces and stately homes, eating off silver while attended by a retinue of servants. Meanwhile, the poor and working classes ground out lives of desperation in abject poverty. Prostitution was rife. Brothels and opium dens operated openly. And in the worst of England’s slums, known as “rookeries,” a vast criminal underground thrived beyond the rule of law.

VaughnFor a novelist, Victorian London provides a grand stage upon which to place one’s characters, give them a nudge to set them in motion, and watch the uncoiling conflict of protagonist versus antagonist buffeted by the social maelstrom of the era. As part of the research for my gothic suspense novel, The Angel of Highgate, I visited London on many research trips to walk the ground where the action takes place. For a writer, it is a thrill to stroll along streets jostled by the ghosts of literary giants such as Dickens, Trollope, Wilkie Collins, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde (amongst many, many others).

The original idea for The Angel of Highgate came many, many years ago when I was a graduate English student browsing in my university library. By chance, I happened to pick up a book entitled Highgate Cemetery: Victorian Valhalla, by Felix Barker. There wasn’t much text: just a brief introduction to the history of Highgate Cemetery and a few simple maps of the grounds. But what made the book so compelling were the atmospheric black and white photographs taken by John Gay, a professional photographer. The book was published in 1988 and many of the photographs were taken around that time. They show a Highgate in full surrender to nature with its tombs and statuary (many since lost to erosion or attacks by vandals) wreathed in vines and slowly submerging beneath the undergrowth. Highgate had long gone out of business as a cemetery and had become derelict and overgrown. A volunteer society, The Friends of Highgate Cemetery, have since taken it over and are working to restore the cemetery, which now also serves as a wildlife sanctuary and is home to many species of birds, as well as foxes, badgers, and the occasional wallaby. (Yes, really!)

As I paged through the book, I was immediately struck by the sheer gravitas of the place: gothic, mysterious, and suffused in entropic decay, Highgate is home to many beautiful tombs that evoke the architecture of classical times, Art Deco, and even ancient Egypt.

The book affected me deeply and I immediately recognized that the cemetery would make a magnificent setting for a novel. I was taking creative writing classes back then, as well as being a member of a writing group. After university I went on to have a career as a writer/editor, working in various industries, but part of my mind was still back in Highgate cemetery, spawning a cast of characters to inhabit this moody necropolis. Many decades later, I finally sat down to write a novel in which the cemetery functions as a major character in the dramatic action.

One of the central themes I explore in The Angel of Highgate is the Victorian fetishisation of death and mourning. At the time, science was throwing open windows onto the mysteries of the universe. And yet, despite all the advances in medicine, many Victorians died young, cut down in the bloom of life by the ravages of cholera, typhoid—and the biggest killer, tuberculosis (or consumption as it was then known)—a disease that defied class barriers and killed high and low alike. The spectre of consumption became a memento-mori for the age and Victorians—already given to maudlin sentimentality—responded by elevating the rituals surrounding death and mourning into a cult. It was during this period that the vile, reeking, bone-strewn churchyards described by Dickens were supplanted by the creation of modern, gorgeously landscaped cemeteries such as Victoria Park, Brookwood, Kensal Green, and the jewel in the crown, Highgate Cemetery, arguably the most beautiful and atmospheric necropolis in the capitol.

The high point of my research jaunts culminated in a trip to Highgate Cemetery, where the novel begins and ends. The narrative follows the travails of the protagonist, the Byronesque rakehell, Lord Geoffrey Thraxton, and whisks the reader through London’s fog-bound streets from a champagne soiree in the mummy room of the British Museum, to a pistol duel on Wimbledon Common, to a harrowing life-or-death struggle with a violent psychopath in the lawless criminal enclave of the Seven Dials Rookery. The story ends at the cemetery, as Highgate works its magic, turning tragedy in beauty, sorrow into acceptance, and hope where once was only loss.

 

The novel has already received kudos from Kirkus Reviews, who described it as “A magnificently written, provocative novel . . .” and on the Historical Novel Society website who described it thusly: “A daringly original mélange of different genres and styles . . . sparkles and unsettles by turns.”

 

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