Whilst the summer weather seems to be fading further every day, looking at these pictures takes me back to a glorious afternoon in July when I visited Highgate Cemetery for the first time. Possibly most famous for being the site of Karl Marx’s grave, the beautifully dilapidated Highgate Cemetery is also the final resting place of several women writers. Of the three shown in the photographs, George Eliot and Radclyffe Hall remain relatively well-known. Mrs Henry Wood, however, has faded into obscurity despite widespread popularity in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. Born Ellen Price in 1814, Mrs Henry Wood initially wrote seemingly for pleasure but when her husband’s business fortunes took a turn for the worse, she began to support the family financially by becoming a prolific author of novels and short stories (more about her life and works can be found here).
I had never come across Wood before but her grave was pointed out by our amazingly informative and interesting tour guide, whose name alas escapes me (Highgate Cemetery is actually comprised of two neighbouring graveyards, one of which can be explored independently. To see the other more decrepit side, one has to join a guided tour. It costs £12, worth every penny). The guide used Wood’s tomb as a jumping-off point for talking about women’s lives in the nineteenth century, skillfully pointing out the discrepancy between the Victorian ideal of domestic femininity and the lived experiences of many women who, like Wood, had to earn money. For those of us who make a living in the twenty-first century by researching and teaching about women’s lives in the past, such incongruities are familiar, but I was hugely impressed by the guide’s knowledge and his commitment to telling a complex and changing story about women’s lives. He weaved this throughout the walk, comparing different graves and the ways in which the epitaphs and memorials reveal different attitudes and social mores about gender – alongside telling us about the cemetery’s history and its relationship to broader socio-cultural and economic change in Britain. At a time when discussion of women in academic and public history can still feel tokenistic or like an adjunct, it was so refreshing to witness such seamless integration. Women were not just a discrete part of the story he was telling. As well as being fascinating in and of themselves, their lives illuminated and enhanced the wider picture that he was sharing. Or, seeing as we were in a cemetery, it is perhaps more accurate to say that it was their deaths which contributed to his tale.