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Burning Bright [Paperback]

Tracy Chevalier
2.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (72 customer reviews)
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Book Description

4 Feb 2008

Flames and funerals, circus feats and seduction, neighbours and nakedness: Tracy Chevalier's Burning Bright sparkles with historical drama.

London 1792. The Kellaways move from familiar rural Dorset to the tumult of a cramped, unforgiving city. They are leaving behind a terrible loss, a blow that only a completely new life may soften.

Against the backdrop of a city jittery over the increasingly bloody French Revolution, a surprising bond forms between Jem, the youngest Kellaway boy, and streetwise Londoner Maggie Butterfield. Their friendship takes a dramatic turn when they become entangled in the life of their neighbour, the printer, poet and radical, William Blake. He is a guiding spirit as Jem and Maggie navigate the unpredictable, exhilarating passage from innocence to experience. Their journey inspires one of Blake's most entrancing works.

Georgian London is recreated as vividly in Burning Bright as 17th-century Delft was in Tracy Chevalier's bestselling masterpiece, Girl with a Pearl Earring. This novel is perfect for fans of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and Essie Fox’s Somnambulist.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; Reprint edition (4 Feb 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007178360
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007178360
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 2.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (72 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 8,117 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Tracy is the author of seven historical novels, including the international bestseller GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING, which has sold over 4 million copies and been made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth. American by birth, British by geography, she lives in London with her husband and son and cat. Her most recent novel, THE LAST RUNAWAY, is her first novel to be set in the United States, and she learned how to make quilts for it. Tracy is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and has honorary doctorates from her alma maters Oberlin College and the University of East Anglia. Her website www.tchevalier.com will tell you more about her and her books.

Product Description


'A subtle clarity of style, quirky but seldom over-drawn characters, engaging touches of domestic detail and a splendidly vital recreation of Georgian London'
Sunday Times

'Vivid, romantic and pacey'
Daily Mail

'Those who admired Chevalier's atmospheric evocation of 17th-century Delft will find much to enjoy in her vivid reconstruction of late 18th-century London'

'Burning Bright is an ambitious, impressively-researched novel…You can almost smell the smoke and mildewed clothes, see the gaunt, pock-marked faces of people struggling to survive and sense Jem's wonder as he gazes across the murky Thames to a perplexing world'
Daily Express

From the Author

THE INSPIRATION: In early 2001 I went to an exhibition of
William Blake's works at Tate Britain in London. This sprawling display
explored the many and varied strands of Blake's life: his paintings,
commercial engravings, books he printed and coloured, illustrated poems,
and prose and letters describing his radical thinking and bohemian world.

I was familiar with Blake's poems from studying them at college, and his
art from a semester I spent studying in London, but I had never seen it all
pulled together. I remember standing in the middle of one of the rooms,
bewildered by the variety and intensity of his work, and thinking, "This
guy was crazy, or on drugs, or both." At the end of the exhibition, I went
into the shop and bought a notebook with a Blake image on the cover,
thinking, "This is the notebook I will use for my Blake novel some day."
Two and a half years later, I opened that notebook and began taking notes.

I spent a whole year reading about Blake and looking at his work before I
began the novel itself. There is so much written about him it's kind of
ridiculous, and confusing. I think Blake is a bit of a mirror - hold him up
to yourself and you will see reflected in him your own interests and
preoccupations. Poetry, art, philosophy, theology, erotica, politics,
socio-economics: it's all there if you choose to look for it.

Blake's work is not easy to cope with. Much of his poetry is long,
personal, and obscure. His illustrations are dark and anxious. By the end
of the year I didn't understand him any better than I had at the start -
though I did at least come to realize that he was neither crazy nor on
drugs. I kept looking for that one work that would explain him to me, but
after a while I realized I was going to have to write it myself.

The works I kept coming back to were his two volumes, Songs of Innocence
and of Experience - short, simple poems I had always loved and felt I sort
of understood. I decided then that I would focus on Blake's writing of
Songs of Experience - to me the acquiring of experience contains more of a
story than being in a state of innocence. The story of Adam and Eve is
interesting because they tasted the apple, after all; otherwise there is no

Speaking of Adam and Eve, I also kept circling back to a story told about
Blake and his wife Catherine. Supposedly their friend Thomas Butts visited
them in Lambeth and found them sitting naked in their garden, reading
Milton's Paradise Lost to each other. Blake is meant to have said, "Oh,
don't mind us - it's only Adam and Eve, you know!" Scholars dismiss the
story as unlikely, but I love it, as it humanizes Blake. It also made me
wonder what it was like to be his neighbor. So I put that together with
Songs of Experience and came up with Burning Bright. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Nice Book 18 Jun 2007
This was a good read, a good tale, but nothing exciting. It told you little bits about William Blake, but I do not feel like a Blake connoisseur having read this! The book tells of a family moving from Dorsetshire to London in 1792, which would probably ring true with anyone making a similar move today. The family live next door to William Blake, and occasionally their paths cross. I loved 'Girl with a Pearl Earring,' it made me seek out Vermeer's work, and look with renewed vigour at Dutch painting. This book simply does not enthuse you with any similar passion.
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33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
By Helen Simpson VINE VOICE
An interesting and detailed picture of London in the late eighteenth century. The people and the industries of the time, along with the feeling of unrest as King George worries that his citizens will revolt like the French.

It took me a little while to get into the story, possibly because I wasn't particularly interested in the circus or the Astleys who owned it. I found it a little poor but it did improve and as the story developed I did grow to like Jem and Maggie, the main characters.

I would disagree with the synopsis that states, "Their friendship takes a dramatic turn when they become entangled in the life of their neighbour...William Blake." They hardly become entangled. He's a printer, a radical and poet who just happens to be a neighbour and features briefly from time to time to give them a little food for thought.

Pleasant, but not gripping.
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31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Sadly, not her best. 23 Mar 2008
I have been a huge fan of Chevalier for a number of years now and absolutely love "Girl with a Pearl Earring" and "Falling Angels". (I'd recommend them in an instant!) When I heard that she was writing a new book (after about four years of no new publications) I couldn't wait to get hold of it, let alone read it.

To summise, the novel revolves arounds the Kellaway family, who move from rural Dorset to late 18th-century London, where they happen to become neighbours with William Blake. The son, Jem Kellaway starts work at a circus and makes friends with Maggie Butterfield. It is very much a tale of their friendship and their relationship with the Blakes.

On the surface, there isn't anything wrong with plot and it's not badly written. However, for me, it was missing something; I think it lacked passion - in her others novels, I have always felt that she enjoyed writing the books and developing the characters/plotlines. In this one, it didn't feel like Chevalier. In addition, one of the reasons why I like Chevalier is that her work doesn't come across as predictable, but in 'Burning Bright' there were one or two subplots (a pregnancy, for example) that were completely unnecessary. When that pregnancy occurred, I was almost screaming 'No!' because I just hoped it wasn't going to be that predictable. If anything, these episodes felt very contrived in order to take the reader from one phase to the next.

I am going to make a large presumption here but it crossed my mind that Chevalier had written the book simply because she hadn't had anything published in a while; almost as if to bring her back on the scene.

Would I recommend it? To be honest, I'd hesitate. If you like Chevalier, then at least read it, but have no expectations. If you have never read Chevalier before, DON'T start with this one.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Blake-lite 25 Jun 2007
If Catherine Cookson had written a book with William Blake in it, I think it would have been more heavyweight than this.

There's nothing terrible about the book per se, except that it is a hugely wasted opportunity. A story about murder, guilt, young love, prostitution, teenage pregnancy and sexual disease in late 18th century London should be far darker than the story Tracy Chevalier has crafted. In fact, these dark themes pervade the whole of Blake's work, but not this novel.

Having William Blake and his wife as incidental characters in the novel is a nice touch, but that's all it is. There's never any real sense of connection between the teenagers and Blake, other than he is a kindly, slightly dotty but well-meaning and wise "old" man (in fact, he would only have been in his mid-thirties when the book is set). Blake is rather one-dimensional and is always on hand at just the right time.

Chevalier has immense sympathy for the young women she protrays, and Maggie and Maisie are believable characters. Less so with the men. In fact, the male characters just drop out of the book without much word. The story about Astley and the circus goes nowhere, other than as a plot vehicle for the Kellaway family. The Butterfield men seem only to be there as cues for Maggie's behaviour.

The book is called Burning Bright and there is a lightness throughout the whole book. Blake, however, meant the light shining in the darkness. Unfortunately, though set the murderous and diseased capital London, which at the time was rent with politcal repression following the French Revolution, the book fails to provide the menace.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Very poor indeed 23 Mar 2008
No stars. It almost seems as if this book was written by someone other than Chevalier. The language was awkward, clumsy, and flat, as were the characterisations. The only attractive aspect of the novel was the photograph of the circus horse on the front cover. I've rarely run across such a poor effort by a good writer. The writing was so terrible overall that I couldn't finish the book. Yet her other works are very good indeed. If you're disappointed by this, do turn to Falling Angels or The Virgin Blue, where you will find evocative settings, lovely use of language, well-developed characters, and intricate plottting.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Not particularly gripping
Every month in the library we hold an 'Open Book Group' session, which basically means that we advertise the book we are going to read and then anyone who comes into the library... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Barmy_Bex
5.0 out of 5 stars Time Travel Through Georgian London
When I finished Burning Bright I missed the characters. A sign of a timely read. I work in the City of London and I am very familiar with Lambeth and Westminster and I simply loved... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Tru
5.0 out of 5 stars An opinion
I heard Chevalier interviewed on television and was impressed. I therefore bought one of her novels and was so engrossed by the writing and content of this book that I am quickly... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Jean
2.0 out of 5 stars Plot Not Great.
Not as good as "The Girl with the Pearl Earning". I kept waiting for something to happen ... but it didnt.
Published 6 months ago by Buzzy_Bee
4.0 out of 5 stars Redressing the balance
I don't normally write reviews on Amazon but I'm glad I read this book despite what reviewers have said about it, and I felt moved to try and redress the balance with a more... Read more
Published 7 months ago by Halandgabron
2.0 out of 5 stars Not a Bright Burner
It is the late 18th century. Thomas Kellaway, a bodger (chairmaker) brings his family to London from Dorset. Read more
Published 9 months ago by gerardpeter
4.0 out of 5 stars Not one of her best
I've read most of Tracy Chevalier's books and she always manages to evoke a sense of time and place but though I'm half way through Burning Bright I still haven't got that strong... Read more
Published 11 months ago by Rikki Pearshouse
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant
I loved this book and I love all her others, What a brilliant story teller. Believable well padded characters, you can see and hear them speaking. Always a bit of a twist in it. Read more
Published 12 months ago by Julieb
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but not extraordinary
The book is written in an easy to read style. It is very informative, if your interest is in the social history of Britain towards the end of the eighteenth century, especially the... Read more
Published 12 months ago by Discerning Reader
2.0 out of 5 stars Burning Bright
I have read some other books by Tracy Chevalier, but this book I found boring and did not finish it
Published 13 months ago by Inger
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