Other Sorrows, Other Joys

Written by Janet Warner
Review by Ilysa Magnus

I must admit to having been completely ignorant about Catherine Boucher Blake, William Blake’s wife, until I read this book. I’m glad that ignorance is a thing of the past.

Blake, the poet of Songs of Innocence and Experience, was an engraver by trade, marginally successful – not because he did not have the ability to succeed in his business, but because economic success had no attraction for him. Rather, Blake was a mystic and a psychic who experienced regular visions. He saw the face of evil. He saw the spirit of his younger brother guiding and protecting him. While Kate also had visions, she was able to keep hers in check while Blake’s began to cloud his world and judgment.

Through Kate’s eyes and words, we share a vision of a new and revolutionary world, brought into being by the tumult of the French and American Revolutions. Many artists were part of this revolutionary fervor, including the Blakes’ good friend, Mary Wollestonecraft, who plays a significant role in this novel. And that revolution was not merely political: Blake regularly had very open extra-marital relationships, as many of their “crowd” did, even though he and Kate continued to have a powerful physical connection throughout their marriage. It was Blake’s philosophy that love was meant to be shared, not drowned in monogamy.

Kate is a complex woman of her times – spanning the late 18th and early 19th centuries – and yet, a very modern one. Janet Warner, a talented writer with considerable skill, fills the pages of this novel with the joys and sorrows of Kate’s life: her barrenness, her unrecognized talent as a painter, her husband’s instability and his infidelities are at counterpoint with her great love for Blake and for the other man in her life. Although Kate Blake’s options may have been limited, Warner still manages to breathe life into her, creating a fascinating protagonist in this beautifully written and conceptualized novel.