My first introduction to Tracy Chevalier was The Girl with the Pearl Earring, which I really liked and still remember key scenes years later. Burning Bright, the second of her works that I read, did not leave quite the same strong impression. It is a fine book, and I definitely had times where I was completely engrossed, so I don’t mean to damn it with faint praise.
Chevalier’s approach is to take someone from history and write a fictionalized account of a character who intersects with that person. In Pearl Earring, that character is the subject of the famous painting. In Burning Bright, Chevalier creates two characters, Jem and Maggie, whose lives intersect with William Blake during the years of 1792 -1793, when he lived in the Lambeth area of London. The French Revolution is going on at this time, so things are quite tense on the British side of the Channel. People are quick to be suspicious of anything that might be considered even vaguely seditious. Aside from recognizing his name, I don’t think I knew anything about Blake before reading this novel. I’m not even sure I could have identified him as British, let alone the time period during which he had lived, and I definitely could not have told you that he was a man whose ideas were fairly unpopular at the time.
Jem Kellaway and his family, mother, Ann; father, Thomas; and sister, Maisie; arrive in London from the countryside in March of 1792. The family has recently lost a beloved son and brother, Tommy, and the move to London is an effort to leave their grief behind. Shortly upon their arrival, they meet Maggie, who has grown up in London and is wise to its ways. Maggie has done a lot of growing up on the streets of London. Her mother is a laundress and her father is constantly trying to figure out how to make a pound—usually by getting materials (wood, metal, etc.) of poor quality and passing them off as higher quality items. Her brother, Charlie, is really good for nothing.
The Kellaway’s next-door neighbor is William Blake and it is through that proximity that Jem and Maggie make their connections with him. In addition to these interactions with Blake, the book also focuses on the Kellaway’s adjustment to the big city, Jem and Maggie’s blossoming interest in each other, and the political goings-on of the time.
If you are unfamiliar with Blake, this book provides a basic introduction to him and his work. Chevalier does an excellent job of dropping you into a different age, and her attention to detail is key to bringing this time period alive. It is fascinating to see some of the knee-jerk (pseudo)patriotism that is all too familiar to us in this day and age, being shown as an echo of similar reactions from years ago. The more things change… as they say.
I’ll leave my review there, so as to not reveal the whole plot and thereby defeat the purpose of you reading the book. Especially if you like historical novels, I think you will enjoy this one. If you need to be grabbed by a book and not let go, this may not be the book for you. If, on the other hand, if you like a book that takes its time and does an excellent job of transporting you to a different time period, then you will like this one.