Monday, February 1, 2010

"BURNING BRIGHT" by Tracy Chevalier

I have read all of Tracy Chevalier's books and enjoyed every one. Perhaps her best known book is "Girl With a Pearl Earring", which told the fictionalized story of a young girl who came to live in Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer's household and posed for his famous painting.

In her book "Burning Bright", Chevalier ties another famous person, English poet and painter William Blake, into her storyline. However, she is not nearly as successful in her attempt to intertwine Blake with her other characters. Throughout the book, he remains on the periphery. He is a neighbor to the protagonist, young Jem Kellaway, but the kind of neighbor you know little about, see only occasionally and interact with very seldom.

Chevalier's failure to truly incorporate Blake's character into the book does not mean that  "Burning Bright" is a failure. On the contrary, it is an excellent book, and I read it in less than 24 hours. It tells the story of the the Kellaway family, father Thomas, mother Anne, Jem and sister Maisie, who move from bucolic Dorsetshire to teeming London in 1792. Jem's father, a craftsman of Winsdor chairs, has moved to London at the invitation of Philip Astley to be a carpenter at Astley's circus amphitheatre.

Jem is befriended by Maggie Butterfield, a savvy, streetwise girl who is basically an urchin, although she does have a mother, father and brother. London is a baffling and quite frightening city for the Kellaways, but Maggie helps them navigate its streets, literally and figuratively.

Chevalier's colorful and well-drawn cast of characters include Astley and his handsome horseman son John, slack rope dancer Miss Laura Devine, Maggie's parents Dick and Bet Butterfield and the Kellaway's snooty landlady Miss Pelham. In contrast, Blake and his wife, Catherine, seem pale and one dimensional.

Chevalier does a wonderful job of limning the filthy, stinky, sooty city of London in the late 18th century, from Westminster Abbey, teeming market street Lambeth Marsh,  Newgate Prison, Bedlam Hospital for the insane, Cut-Throat Lane, Blackfriars Bridge, pubs like the Canterbury Arms and the Red Lion, and the mucky Thames that flows through it all.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Kellaway becomes besotted with the circus, her daughter Maisie is dazzled with the handsome and rakish John Astley, and Jem is by turns put off by and intrigued with Maggie.

I'm not at all sure why Chevalier decided to incorporate Blake into the book, except that she is a great admirer of his poetry. There is a subplot regarding Blake's anti-parliamentary views and his wearing of Le Bonnet Rouge in sympathy with French Revolutionaries. As Blake tells Jem and Maggie, he writes about "children, and the helpless, and the poor. Children lost and cold and hungry. The government does not like to be told it is not looking after its people. They think I am suggesting revolution, as there has been in France".

I don't believe Chevalier needed this weak subplot - or even the character of Blake - to tell the story of London's downtrodden. Her settings and her characters are more than enough to convey her passion, as shared by Blake in this poem:


"I wander thro' each chartered street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow
A mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant's cry of fear,
In every voice; in every ban,
The mind-fogg'd manacles I hear.

How the chimney sweep's cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.

But most thro' the midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot's curse
Blasts the new born Infant's tear
And blights with plague the Marriage hearse."

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