At the Graveside and At Home

April 5, 2002

Tracy Chevalier, Falling Angels, London: HarperCollins, 2001.

Reviewed by Janie Gibson

9780452283206HMany writers choose to write historical fiction. Some however, are far better than others at conveying not only events, but also the atmosphere of the time. In her second novel, Falling Angels, Tracy Chevalier again captures the feeling and atmosphere of the period she is using as her background setting. We come to know her characters, both adult and child, not by what she tells the reader, but by their behaviour, their thoughts, the words and the tones of voice they use.

The opening paragraph does not specifically define the time or place. However certain phrases in the text gradually draw the reader into the historical period Chevalier is evoking. Initially the novel appears to be just another story about a difficult marriage, but as the plot unfolds, it becomes multidimensional. Not only do we view the relationships and events through the parents’ eyes, but also from the point of view of the children, the servants and outsiders, such as the gravedigger’s son Simon.

Two families, the Colemans and the Waterhouses, meet through a visit to their family gravestones positioned side by side. The relationship is immediately coloured by the disdain which each has expressed for the other’s choice of headstone: the Waterhouse’s sentimental angel and the Coleman’s austere urn. Unconcerned by their parents’ difference, the five year old Lavinia Waterhouse and Maude Coleman strike up a firm friendship while exploring the graveyard. Here they encounter Simon, the apprentice gravedigger.

The gravestones are but one symbol of the social gulf between the families and their inability to overcome it. The two women hold their ‘at homes’ on the same day to avoid having to invite one another. The Queen has died but the Coleman’s do not go along wholeheartedly with the rituals associated with mourning her, contrasting sharply with the Waterhouse’s devotion to ‘ritual’ and the past. These attitudes are further emphasised by Chevalier through the continued relationship of the two girls.

Chevalier uses events and symbols to convey the differences between the marriages and lifestyles of the adult Colemans and Waterhouses. As the novel progresses, Chevalier explores the Coleman’s marriage problems. While they go to events together, they do so under sufferance. Attending a Guy Fawkes bonfire, Kitty draws comparisons with their actions and their relationship. As she moved closer to the bonfire, Richard stayed back looking up: “That is just like him – his love is not in the heat but in the clear sky”.

Chevalier succeeds in conveying the period and the physical space the characters move through by developing their commentary to include descriptions of their houses and the places they visit.  Thus a description of a particular building might come through a character discussing her reason for holding an ‘at home’ in the front room rather than the parlour. We also come to know the cemetery, which plays an important role in the story, through the actions of the characters, and what happens in the cemetery, as well as from brief descriptions of the gates or the hill leading to the graveyard. Social context is also conveyed in this way. Attitudes to pregnancy and abortion ‘below stairs’ are contrasted with those in ‘society’, and we see the shame that Kitty’s involvement with the Suffragette movement brings on Richard’s family name. Chevalier allows the reader to ‘imagine’ the meeting of the Suffragettes at Kitty’s ‘at home’, while at the same time using Waterhouse’s tone of voice as she describes the meeting to convey the disapproval many would feel at such noisy women being at ‘afternoon tea’. Perhaps for some readers her sparseness may be a problem if they are unable to visualize the scene.

Chevalier successfully attunes her language to the age and gender of the speaker. The book is divided chronologically into sections, but within a section each chapter provides the reflections of a character on his or her part in the action. It is through this ability to capture, for example, Simon’s Cockney accent and feelings as vividly as the more educated Maude’s or the dramatic Lavinia’s reflections, comments, and feelings, that not only is the reader caught up in the events unfolding, but also comes to empathise with the different characters as their lives are changed. Minor characters become individual people, integral to the plot.

Over the ten-year period covered in the novel, the relationships between the two families ebb and flow. As Kitty becomes more disillusioned with her marriage she starts to take risks to gain personal freedom. In doing so she sets in train a series of events that not only affect her, but also change the lives of all the characters.

Chevalier has the ability to tempt the reader to explore further the period she is writing about, along with creating hope that she will repeat the performance a third time.

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