Although I have visited Highgate Cemetery before, I had very specific places that I wanted to see this time because of the Ripper series. The West part of the cemetery (the most fascinating and beautiful part) can only be entered through taking a guided tour in which tickets must be purchased in advance. Apart from seeing Egyptian Avenue again, I needed to take photographs of the Rossetti family plot where Elizabeth Siddal and Christina Rossetti are buried—the plot where Dante Gabriel Rossetti had his wife, Siddal, exhumed and then reburied one year after her death. He wanted to retrieve his unpublished poetry that he had placed lovingly in her coffin. (The guy needed money!) But I was nervous, terribly nervous, about getting back to the family plot. This is why… Highgate Cemetery is privately run by mostly unpaid volunteers who very much care about its upkeep and reputation. (Incidentally, the cost of this upkeep runs at about £2000 per day! So donations are important.) But before the Friends of Highgate Cemetery was formed in 1975, the grounds had fallen into disrepair and were plagued by vandals, Satanists, ghost hunters, and small mobs of crazy people trying to drive a stake through the heart of the “Highgate vampire.” (I’m not kidding.) The volunteers now care deeply about the reputation of the Cemetery and shun sensationalism. Although well-documented and true, Siddal’s exhumation falls into the sensational category and is not included on the guided tours.
Anecdotally, I had a friend who visited Highgate Cemetery and when he asked his elderly guide about Siddal’s grave, she replied: “We don’t tell that story here.” (He proceeded to tell the story to all the other members in his tour group to her tight-lipped chagrin.) When I visited the Cemetery in 2005, my tour guide told me to “be very careful about who you discuss that story with here.” So, understandably, I was nervous about how I would “sweet talk” my tour guide into showing me the place. On the entire walk up Swain’s Lane I went over with my fearless research assistant (my younger sister) potential strategies for getting our guide to take me back there. I was seriously stressed…
Our tour guide, “Peter,” was older, looked a bit hurried, and he didn’t smile much. After briefly debating tactics, I decided that begging (and not mentioning Siddal’s name) would be the best approach.
Here’s how it went:
“Hi Peter, I’m working on a book series, and I need to see the Rossetti family plot. Could you please take me to it?”
Peter furrows brows, sighs audibly, says in an authoritarian British accent: “There is NO WAY I’m taking our group back there. It is too far off the path. We don’t have time..”
Me (wishing that I had removed my eyeglasses before speaking to him as they do no favors for my face): “Please…I came all the way from America to see it!”
Peter: “I will make NO PROMISES!”
“How’d that go?” I whispered to my sister.
“Well, other than seeming a bit desperate, pretty well. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.”
I tried to walk toward the front of the group during the whole tour. I nodded a lot, smiled a lot. I tried not to be too obnoxious or take too many photographs. And the tour was fascinating. Peter was an excellent guide. I learned that a very rare species of spiders had recently been discovered in some of the tombs. I learned about the symbol of the lotus on the entrance to Egyptian Avenue—rebirth. I learned even more about the Victorians’ funny views of death, how so many of the graves are above ground so that they could feel connected to their dead loved ones. I walked through Egyptian Avenue, trying to see it through Abbie Sharp’s eyes, through her world. Peter even took us inside one of the tombs; it was cold, gloomy, and windswept in spite of the sunny spring day. I knew at the point when Peter told us what a terribly rotten man the menagerist, George Wombwell, was for neglecting and mistreating his animals that Peter, in spite of his scary British accent, was really a kind man and that he would, in the end, take me back to the Rossetti plot.
A bit out of the way, the plot is not that large. Only a few of the Rossetti’s are buried there, and the graves, compared to many in the cemetery, are very simple and modest. As you can see from the photographs I’m posting, you can barely see the names on the stones. Still the plot is marked with the overgrown beauty of so much of the rest of Highgate Cemetery. But it is the resting plot of two remarkable women, and I wished that I had brought them flowers.
I hope to return to the Cemetery before too long. It is such a testament to Victorian sentimentality and oddness and such a rich background for some of my favorite books including Dracula, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry.