Where Writers Go to Sleep: A Visit to London’s Highgate Cemetery

Where Writers Go to Sleep: A Visit to London’s Highgate Cemetery

On a hill above central London, on either side of a leafy, quiet street lies Highgate Cemetery - the last resting place of some of Britain’s most acclaimed authors, poets and journalists, artists and wealthy Victorians. Divided into two sections which straddle each side of the road, Highgate is one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world. 

Wide, tidy thoroughfares veer off into smaller paths where unkempt graves have been swallowed up by untamed greenery. A handy map given to you at the entrance will help you navigate to specific locations, but it is also nice to wander and explore. While Highgate was an illustrious place to be buried, for Victorians it was also a popular hang-out places. Having a familiarity with death and burial might seem unusual for us today, the Victorians had no problem with close proximity to bones and thought it would actually be a great picnic spot.

So if you happen to have a free afternoon next time you’re in London we would definitely recommend this place as an escape from the hustle and noise of the city. Read on for our short guide to the authors—both the famous and the obscure— you can visit there. 

 

 

  1. George Elliot (1819-1880) is buried under her both her pseudonym and her birth name, Mary Ann Evans, was the writer of classics such as Silas Marner (1861) and The Mill on the Floss (1860).

Eliot wanted to be buried at Westminster Abbey, but her unconventional lifestyle and atheism quickly ruled this out. Instead she is buried in a section of Highgate reserved for political and religious dissenters. Her grave is next to the man who was her partner for over twenty years, George Henry Lewis. Elliot and he lived together for over twenty years whilst he was married to another woman. Despite how unconventional this arrangement was, Elliot lived very openly.

 

 

Isolated through her flaunting of social norms, Eliot’s writing flourished. She wrote under a pen name in order to be better taken seriously, as well as protect her private life. Shortly after Lewes’ death, she married her friend and financial advisor, John Walter Cross — also scandalously twenty years her junior (she was sixty at the time). Sadly, their union was short lived, as she died within the year from kidney failure. 

3. Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)

Christina Rossetti, one of Britain’s finest poets, is buried in a family plot in Highgate. The writer of classics such as “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “Goblin Market”, Rossetti was born to a family of Italian immigrants made up of teachers and scholars. Her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. While Christina declined becoming a member, she and her brother still enjoyed a creative partnership, with Gabriel creating beautiful illustrations for Goblin Market, as well as painting many portraits of Christina.

 

 

Christina’s life was marred by serious illness, including a type of hyperthyroidism called Graves’ Disease. This restricted her ability to move in the world, at the same time that the solitude may have benefited her writerly output. She died at age 64, and is buried with her mother, sister and brothers.

 

 

4. Radclyffe Hall (1880-1943)

Just a few hundred metres away from these acclaimed authors and poets lie writers whose fame has faded considerably since their death. But an opportunity to visit their last resting places is also an opportunity to get to know their body of work as well (no pun intended!). 

One such writer is Radclyffe Hall, a writer who lived as interestingly as she wrote. Born to a wealthy British father and American socialite mother, she wrote five poetry collections and eight novels, the most famous of which is called “The Well of Loneliness”. Hall lived openly as a lesbian and her novels touch upon on this theme, “The Well” most overtly — it has been the subject of obscenity trials and has been banned at different points. Preferring to go under the name “John” rather than her given name Marguerite, she also preferred dressing is traditionally masculine clothes. She made for a striking figure wit her cropped hair, wide-brimmed hat and a pug dog under her arm. She died at the age of 63 and is buried in the family vault of her long-term partner, Mabel Batten.

 

 

 

 

5. Elizabeth Siddal (1829-1862)

Pre-Raphaelite adjacent author is buried in Highgate in the Rossetti family plot. Siddal, most famously known as her husband Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s muse, was also a prolific poet in her own right.

Born to a less than affluent family in South London, she claimed to first read Tennyson after finding one or two of his poems wrapped around a pat of butter. Siddal was working in a millinery when she met Pre-Raphaelite painter Walter Deverell. Extremely tall, with long copper hair and striking grey eyes, he employed her as a model and introduced her to the other Pre-Raphaelites. 

As an artist and poet, she produced over a hundred different works. Her poetry was never published while she was alive, yet drew praise and acclaim from her peers. She wrote on dark, melancholy themes, such as lost love and medieval inspired ballads. 

Siddall suffered from the affects of tuberculosis and neuralgia, for which she took copious amounts of laudanum, an addiction to which may have worsened her ailments. She also suffered with severe depression, brought about from her tumultuous relationship with Gabriel Rossetti and the still-born birth of their daughter. At age 32, she was found unresponsive by her husband after taking a large dose of laudanum. The exact circumstances of death were left purposely murky, as a person who died by suicide would not be allowed a Christian burial.

She is buried with the rest of the Rossetti family. In a bizarre fit of insanity, Gabriel had her exhumed seven years later in order to retrieve a volume of his poetry he had buried beside her body, which he later published.

 

 

6. Opal Whiteley (1897-1992)

Highgate Cemetery is also the final destination for many expatriates who ended up in London and never left. One of whom is American nature writer Opal Whitely. Somewhat of a child prodigy, she began giving lectures and talks in her community on natural history and geography of rural Oregon. She began publishing her childhood diary in serial form in the Atlantic Monthly, and eventually published it as a book in 1920 under the title “The Story of Opal”. It was a huge success both in serial form and as a complete book.

Despite her strong connection to nature and all things earthly, she wasn’t a stranger to a bit of fabulism as well - she claimed to be the illegitimate daughter of French naturalist Prince Henri of Orléans, even going so far as to refer to herself by the name “Francoise Marie de Bourbon-Orléans”. Her published diaries had made her quite famous, and there was some speculation as to whether she had indeed written her diaries. She struggled to adapt to her new fame and after travelling in India she settled in the U.K. 

Her mental health had deteriorated and she was found living in impoverished circumstances in a basement flat, surrounding by thousands of books. She was committed to Napsbury, a mental hospital, where she would remain for the next forty-four years until her death.

 

 

 

 

7. Arthur Waley (1889-1966)  was a acclaimed Orientalist who translated some of the finest works of Chinese and Japanese poetry and novels, such as The Tale of Genji, acting as an unofficial ambassador of East Asian literature. 

Unable to finish university due to eyesight problems, Waley found a job in 1913 working as Assistant Keeper of Oriental Prints and Manuscripts at the British Museum. Under the tutelage of his supervisor, he taught himself to read Classical Chinese and Japanese to aid with his work in cataloguing paintings. He left the museum after sixteen years and moved to Bloomsbury to devote himself to writing and translation work, which he did for the rest of his life. 


Despite an illustrious career in the study of these two country’s languages, he never actually visited China or Japan. He was elected an honorary fellow in by alma mater, King’s College, in 1945 and received a CBE in 1952. His work was set apart from others by the fact that he was not only a fine scholar but also a true poet. He died in 1976, and is buried in a simple unmarked grave.

 

 

8. Douglas Adams (1952-2001)

Adams’ grave was littered with ballpoint pens until groundskeepers instituted a special pot for visitors to place their pens in. These pen offerings are an homage to a passage from “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, which imagines a fantastical society where lost ballpoint pens go.

Humorist, novelist and screenwriter, Adams most famous work is the aforementioned “Hitchhiker’s Guide”. But his writing career spans much more than his beloved novel. He wrote Monty Python sketches, Doctor Who scripts and performed at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Hitchhiker’s Guide began as a BBC Radio 4 play, which he later adapted into a mini-series for TV. He also spent several years working its screenplay adaptation for a Hollywood movie, which would not come to fruition in his lifetime. Sadly, he far too young at the age of 49. Despite his premature death, his legacy continues to spark new work — several of his books and stories have published and new adaptations made into TV shows.

 

 

 

 

9. John Galsworthy (1867-1933)

Galsworthy was novelist well-known for his vast collection of novels called The Forsyth Saga. Raised in a wealthy family in London, he attended New College, Oxford with the intention of an establishing a career in the law. Despite passing the bar exam, he found he could not settle into a career as a barrister. He left to travel to Canada and soon expanded his trip to a long voyage to the South Seas. On route to Cape Town he met the novelist Joseph Conrad, who would become his close friend. 

He published his first book, a volume of short stories, at age thirty, and whilst his father was alive he wrote under a pseudonym. He had also never told his father that he had been in a relationship with his cousin’s estranged wife Ada for the past nine years. Following his death they married in 1905.

Of his twenty novels, nine involved the Forsyte family. These novels followed the fates of the newly wealthy upper-middle class Forsyte family over the span of several generations.

 He also wrote many plays and short stories. While the Forsyte novels have always remained somewhat popular, they enjoyed a huge resurgence following a popular BBC adaptation of the first two trilogies.

He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1932 but was by this time too sick to attend the ceremony, and he died just days later at the age of 65. While his ashes were scattered by aeroplane over the South Downs, you can visit his cenotaph at Highgate.

 

 

10. Stella Gibbons (1902-1989)

British author and journalist Stella Gibbons is best known for her novel Cold Comfort Farm and its sequel. Despite twenty-two novels as well as short stories and poetry, none made much of an impact apart from Cold Comfort.

After receiving a Diploma in Journalism from University College London. After the early deaths of both her parents, she was forced to become the breadwinner for her two younger brothers. She found work as a secretary for the Evening Standard, later promoted to reporter and features writer. During her free time she would write poetry, some of which she published. She would later go on to work for The Lady as well at the same time beginning her magnum opus, Cold Comfort Farm. The comic novel is spoofing of a popular genre of ladies novel which were characterised by overblown plots and melodramatic romances. The book was an instant success, with some believing that the book was so good that “Stella Gibbons” might be a pseudonym for Evelyn Waugh.

While not particularly fond of her new-found celebrity, she did capitalise on the moment to quit her job at The Lady in order to write full-time, which she would continue to do so until her later years. Even after she ceased published novels or poetry, she wrote down her thoughts and opinions in a private commonplace book. She died age 87 and is buried with her husband, Allan Webb.

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