In Burning Bright, author Tracy Chevalier, who is best known for Girl with a Pearl Earring, tells the story of a friendship between the poet and engraver William Blake and two children, Jem Kellaway and Maggie Butterfield, who are both fictional characters, in 1790s London. Jem's father, chairmaker Thomas Kellaway, moves from rural Dorsetshire to the London neighborhood of Lambeth with his family--wife Anne, teenage daughter Maisie, and twelve-year-old son Jem--when he finds work with circus owner Philip Astley, making chairs for his famous amphitheater, which was a leading entertainment venue in London at the time. The Kellaways decide to leave Dorsetshire after Jem's older brother dies in a fall from a tree. At first the family has a hard time adjusting to life in London, but Jem soon makes friends with the streetwise Maggie, a girl of around his age, who teaches him how to get used to their working-class London neighborhood. Maggie's father is a small-time crook and her mother is a laundress. She has a loutish older brother, Charlie, who constantly reminds her of a traumatic incident in her past which only the two of them know about. It gradually unfolds during the book, exactly what happened. Maggie takes a job at a mustard factory to support her family, even though she hates the work.
William Blake and his wife are next-door neighbors of the Kellaways. Most of the people in the neighborhood treat him with suspicion because of his support for the French Revolution. At this time, there was a great fear of revolution in England. People came door-to-door to force people to sign petitions in support of the King of England, and they would throw stones at the houses of those who refused to sign. Chevalier describes these incidents in vivid detail. Blake, of course, refuses to sign the petition. His visionary poetry is unpublished at this time. Many people did not understand it. Blake and the two children, Jem and Maggie, become friends. He reads his poetry to them, and he shows them how he makes his engravings. Maggie takes refuge with the Blakes when she runs away from her family. Meanwhile, Jem's sister Maisie is seduced by the circus owner's son, horseback rider John Astley, and becomes pregnant by him. It is the Blakes who take her in, when she is afraid to tell her own family about her pregnancy. Chevalier suggests that Jem and Maggie are the inspiration for Blake's best-known books of poetry, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. One of the major themes of the novel is the conditions of innocence and experience, and how they can coexist in the same person.
Chevalier gives a richly detailed account of 1790s London, especially the neighborhood of Lambeth, with all its sights, sounds, and smells. She makes the setting come alive for the reader. The scenes at Astley's Circus are vividly portrayed, and we see why the circus was such an important form of entertainment for Londoners of the time. It provided a distraction from the events going on in the wider world, especially the French Revolution. The performers were often treated badly, as we see in an early scene where Blake shows his compassion for a circus boy who is forced to walk with a log attached to his foot. John Astley, the star performer, is portrayed as a scoundrel who constantly seduces and abandons women. Maisie Kellaway is one of his many victims.
I have noticed that Burning Bright has received some negative reviews, but I do not agree with them. It seems that many of the people who reviewed it negatively were expecting it to be a novel about William Blake. That is not what it is. It is a novel about the two fictional children, Jem and Maggie, their families, and their interactions with Blake, as well as a vivid portrait of life in London in the 1790s. It is also not a quick read, and not focused on plot. Some people have said the plot is thin, and I see where they are coming from, but I do not think this is the main point of the novel. The focus is on the characters and their society. Chevalier allows the reader to savor the details of the society she is writing about. If you read Burning Bright with this in mind, it will prove very rewarding.
Burning Bright is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library.