Tracy Chevalier, Falling Angels
London, dawn of the XXth century. The funerals of Queen Victoria mark the beginning of the short reign of King Edward. In this transitional and more relaxed period of English history, we follow 9 years in the lives of two families, the Colemans and the Waterhouses, until the death of King Edward.
Big and small events are witnessed and analyzed by each member of the two families, plus their maids, a gravedigger’s son, and the manager of the cemetery, bringing with each short chapter a new perspective, through the voices of working class, middle-class or upper-middle-class children and adults.
The Colemans and Waterhouses, neighbors in life and in death since the two families own adjacent graves, will have to show civility to each other despite their differences since their respective daughters, Maude and Lavinia, become best friends. Their infatuation for the cemetery will cause their lives and the lives of their families to revolve around it: it becomes the unusual place where friendships and love affairs are tied and broken…
Just as I was becoming slightly weary of this mortuary scenery, the novel takes a new turn and the focus of interest shifts from the cemetery to a larger picture of London. Very clever move of the author… The second-half of the book thus takes a different orientation and we get an insight of the daily life and struggle of the suffragettes as they meet and demonstrate to earn the right for women to vote. The characters, voluntarily or accidentally, find themselves caught in the whirlwind of history as they have become part of a new society that struggles to emerge from the still burning ashes of Victorian conservatism. The ending of the book shows that the mainstream of history and evolving society is stronger than individual pillars of resistance, such as the character of Edith Coleman, the typical Victorian grandmother.
Through all these different points of view, Chevalier exposes particular and unusual aspects of the era, such as fashions, the mourning etiquette, prisons for women or even more intimate aspects of women’s life. What could pass, if more heavily handed, for gratuitous encyclopedic information, is here subtly sprinkled throughout the story. Light and tragic at turns, witty, full of clever symbolism, this novel takes a slow start but soon becomes impossible to put down.
The characters drawn by Chevalier are lifelike, and avoid traditional clichés. The three more remarkable characters are Lavinia Waterhouse, Kitty Coleman and Maude Coleman. Lavinia is a spoiled child who loves angels (standing, sleeping or falling angels, everything but fallen angels, in fact…) She is inclined to melodramas, nostalgic of Victorian pompousness and becomes the not always willing recipient of dark secrets that will ultimately lead her to grow up and open her mind a little bit. Kitty Coleman, a character who seems to come straight out of a Henry James novel, is a woman dissatisfied with her life who, after the bitter disillusion of adultery and its consequences, throws herself entirely into a cause that will ultimately lead two families into tragedy. Kitty’s daughter Maude is the most endearing character of the novel. As practical and scientific as her friend is superstitious and shallow, she remains the most stable character in the tempest and she chooses a more sensible road to modernism, shaping her own destiny with firm rationalism rather than passionate excesses.
As with Girl with a Pearl Earring, Chevalier proves to be a very skillful writer. Her flowing prose makes the reader travel back in time, and through all those different voices, gives new and refreshing perspectives on a particular period of history. Like in her preceding novel, Chevalier’s style reminds me a lot of Henry James, and this time, has echoes of the more recent Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.