Burning Bright

Written by Tracy Chevalier
Review by Sally Zigmond

The novel takes its title from what is probably William Blake’s most famous poem, and its premise is the contrasting, but closely allied, human conditions of Innocence and Experience, which again brings us back to Blake.

However, he has very little part to play. He is merely the eccentric neighbour of the Kellaway family, who have moved from Dorset to London. Thomas, the father, is a furniture maker who finds work with Philip Astley’s celebrated circus in Lambeth. His son, Jem, an innocent abroad if ever there was one, makes friends with Maggie Butterfield, whose family are typical Londoners, sharp, resourceful and not averse to a spot of criminality to make a living. Maggie represents both experience in her street-wise demeanour but also innocence in her youth and the way she is forced to work in a mustard factory. The couple find Blake a strange, but kind man, but he is merely an observer and we are to believe that Jem and Maggie were his inspiration for his Songs of Innocence and Experience.

There isn’t much in the way of plot and character development, and I do think the author has lost an opportunity in not giving William Blake a greater part to play in what is a somewhat predictable tale. However, great pleasure is derived from Chevalier’s vivid sense of place. In her hands, late 18th-century London and Lambeth in particular spring to life, and you see a city teetering on the brink of the rapid expansion and industrialisation that is about to change it forever.