For readers who enjoy historical fiction, Tracy Chevalier’s Burning Bright is a winner, one I enjoyed even more than some of her other novels. Each focuses on some historical figure in the world of art or literature, uncovering the daily life of this artist and how he or she might have reacted to those around him.
The setting of this novel is the late 18th century London in a section of the city where life is lived closed to the edge of disaster for many reasons – poverty, violence, and disease.
The characters include the Kellaway family, a sturdy rural family newly arrived in London to improve their living standard. Tom is a chair-maker and his wife, Anne, makes buttons, selling them to a peddler. Son Sam, about to be married, has stayed behind. Coming into the strange life of an urban city with them are Maisie, 15, naïve, easily awed by the new sights she encounters, and Jem, 13, never quite sure this is the place for him and his idealistic way of thinking.
Philip Astley, circus owner, loves anything splashy that might amuse the masses and put money in his pocket. Yet he is good-hearted when so inclined. He hires Tom Kellaway to be a carpenter with his busy enterprise. John, son of Philip, is the villain of the piece, a womanizer, destroyer of what is pure and good.
Also featured in the novel are the Butterfields, long-time residents of London and enured to its ways. Dick is a schemer looking for ways to make money without working. Easy-going, a shyster if need be, he loves most the company of those who frequent the pool hall. His wife does laundry at night to support the family. Daughter Maggie, who with Maisie and Jem are the main characters in the novel, is a “tyger burning bright,” unschooled yet street smart, looking for answers, never giving up, ready to help.
Romantic poet William Blake and his wife, Katie, live next door to the Kellaways. He is a poet, printer and engraver, artist, who sees the blight in the city and speaks up for the lower classes. His voice cries in the darkness of London about the plight of the poor and children: A little black thing among the snow/ crying ‘weep, weep,’ in notes of woe!/ ‘Where are thy father & mother? Say?’/ ‘They are both gone up to the church to pray’ (“The Chimney Sweep”).
Chevalier vividly depicts life in 1792-3 as seen for the first time through the eyes of the rural Kellaways who mingle with the hard-scrabble class of rabble, street people, prostitutes, peddlers and beggars as well as tradesmen such as carpenters, tailors, weavers and middle class merchants and elite upper classes. Each keeps elbowing one another to keep body and soul alive and not be shoved down the social ladder.
Sanitary conditions in the late 1700s were wretched with everything unwanted in a household dumped on the street. Prostitution was a necessary way of earning a living for some young girls. Bawdy language and rowdy behavior were common. Children, uneducated, were forced to work at a young age, especially girls. Boys, when possible, were apprenticed to a tradesman.
In this world of squalor William Blake befriends the adolescent Maggie, Maisie and Jem as opportunities present themselves, hoping to instill in these developing minds that the world consists of “contraries” or opposites: male/female, light/darkness, surface reality/interior, heaven/hell, and especially innocence and experience, and to learn from this. He gives them a glimpse of the life of a poet and artist and that knowing how to read can lift them to a higher plane.
Blake believes in the ideals of the French revolutionists attempting to make their influence felt in England at this time, but is not an activist. He is reverent toward the Bible but hostile toward organized religion. He abhors slavery and anything that oppresses the spirit. He believes the poor need protection and help in such an adversarial world.
The novel follows the lives of Maggie and the Kellaway children from innocence into experience, including the tragic seduction and rape of young Maggie. This section depicts tenderly, tragically, the poem for which Blake is probably best known: Rose, thou art sick,/ the invisible worm,/that flies in the night/ in the howling storm: has found out thy bed/ of crimson joy: and his dark secret love/ does thy life destroy. Yet Maggie has a resilience that permits her to overcome this terrible jolt into adult life.
Several of Blake’s “Songs of Experience” and “Songs of Innocence” are reproduced in an appendix for readers unfamiliar with his work.