I really enjoyed reading Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier. It’s been sitting unread for several years on the to-be read shelves and I’ve been meaning to read it for ages after reading her earlier book, Girl with a Pearl Earring. I should have got round to it sooner.
I woke this morning with a stranger in my bed. The head of blond hair beside me was decidedly not my husband’s. I did not know whether to be shocked or amused.
Well, I thought, here’s a novel way to begin the new century.
It is 1901, the day after Queen Victoria’s death and the ‘I’ in this opening is Kitty Coleman, one of several narrators in this novel set in Edwardian England.
Synopsis from Tracy Chevalier’s website:
Two families visit neighboring graves in a fashionable London cemetery. One is decorated with a sentimental angel, the other an elaborate urn. The Waterhouses revere the late Queen and cling to Victorian traditions; the Colemans look forward to a more modern society. To their mutual distaste, the families are inextricably linked when their daughters become friends behind the tombstones. And worse, befriend the gravedigger’s son.
As the girls grow up and the new century finds its feet, as cars replace horses and electricity outshines gas lighting, Britain emerges from the shadows of oppressive Victorian values to a golden Edwardian summer. It is then that the beautiful, frustrated Mrs Coleman makes a bid for greater personal freedom, with disastrous consequences, and the lives of the Colemans and the Waterhouses are changed forever.
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.
This book covers the years from 1901 – 1908 when the world was on the cusp of change just before the outbreak of the First World War, and I found myself wondering what my grandmothers, who would have been much the same age as Kitty Coleman and Gertrude Waterhouse, had thought about it all. What would they have thought about the suffragettes for example? I suspect it would have been similar to one of the characters, Jenny Whitby, the Colemans’ maid servant, as they too were domestic servants. Jenny is horrified when she listens to the suffragettes, whilst she served them with scones at Kitty Coleman’s ‘At Home’:
What I heard made me want to spit. They talked about helping women but it turns out they are choosy about who exactly gets the help. They ain’t fighting for my vote – only for women who own property or went to university. (pages 227 – 228)
Maybe my great aunt who never married and became a matron at a public school would have had more sympathy and agreed with the suffragettes that all women would not get the vote all at once and they had to start somewhere. These are the early years of the suffragette movement culminating in the book in June 1908 with the Women’s March in Hyde Park to demand Votes for Women.
The change between Victorian and Edwardian England was a gradual one, as attitudes to life and death were transformed and the middle-class Colemans and the Waterhouses reflect these changing attitudes with the Colemans looking forward to the modern era, whilst the Waterhouses still value the Victorian traditions. I was interested in the discussion about cremation/burial, with Kitty favouring cremation in opposition to her mother-in-law as they visited the columbarium (a place for keeping cinerary remains, ie ashes) that had recently been opened at the cemetery. Their discussion with Mr Jackson, the superintendent of the cemetery was a theological one in which he ends the discussion of how God could reunite the body and soul if the body has been burnt by saying:
Surely there is no difference between the decomposed remains of a buried body and the ashes of a burned one. … I would simply say that God is capable of all things, and nothing we do with our remains will stop Him if he wishes to reunite our souls with our bodies. (pages 37 – 38)
I liked the multiple first person narrator structure of the book, giving an all round view of events and the characters’ views and thoughts. It was easy to distinguish between them all, the two daughters, Maude Coleman and Lavinia Waterhouse in particular are very well depicted. The setting too is so well described that I could imagine myself wandering round the cemetery with all its gothic symbology, and see the suffragettes’ march with their banners ‘Deeds not Words’ and hear their cries of ‘Votes for Women’.
It’s an easy to read book that still manages to contain depth both of characterisation and of themes – family relationships, in particular that of mother and daughter, attitudes towards death and mourning, the change in social codes, the perils of being an unmarried mother and the beginnings of the women’s movement. I was fascinated by it!
Although I didn’t read this to take part in any challenges I realise that it fits in with several I’ve signed up to do – the Mount TBR Challenge, the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and the What’s in a Name Challenge (in the category of book with the word ‘down’ or an equivalent in the title).