Burning Bright Paperback – 14 Aug 2014
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'A subtle clarity of style, quirky but seldom over-drawn characters, engaging touches of domestic detail and a splendidly vital recreation of Georgian London'
'Vivid, romantic and pacey'
'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'
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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Top customer reviews
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.
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.
After first reading ‘The Girl with the Pearl Earring’ many moons ago I tough I would never read a TC book again as I thought it was awful. I am glad that I have changed my mind and now have read all but one of her books.
This book I quite enjoyed. What TC does do is give a good sense of place and I really felt I was following the characters along the streets of Georgian London. I also enjoyed the snippets into Astley’s circus. This also interested me as my married name is Astley and my husbands family were gypsies and travellers.
My favourite character had to be Maisie, ‘Miss Piddle’. I loved her to bits and wanted to take her home myself and tell her not to go after the awful John Astley. She I think is the main reason I liked this book.
There is also William Blake who lives next to the Kellaways. I didn’t ’t really know much about Blake and to be honest came away from the book still not knowing much about him. For me the author could have concentrated more on the circus and just have Mr Blake as the nice man next door.
Overall I liked the book very much and will always look out for more new books by Tracy Chevalier.
I was disappointed by this book. I read it because I had recently read and enjoyed Chevalier's novel Remarkable Creatures, which tells the story of two women, Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, who in the early nineteenth century made important contributions to the then emerging science of evolution; Remarkable Creatures provides a good perspective both about the two women and about the contemporary scientific debate. With this in mind, I had anticipated that Burning Bright would focus on Blake - an historical figure of great interest - and that I would gain new insights about him as a result. I particularly expected that it would focus on his attitude towards the French Revolution and its possible consequences for England, given the novel's 1792-93 setting.
Unfortunately, Blake is a marginal figure in the book, whose focus is on the fictional characters. I didn't feel that I learned anything worthwhile about him at all. As for the French Revolution, this features only in one small part of the book, and again no significant insights or ideas are developed. Thus, this book doesn't replicate the strengths of Remarkable Creatures in illuminating interesting historical figures. This might not matter if its fictional characters were well developed or if it had an ingenious plot or interesting themes. Unfortunately, none of these requirements is met. Overall, I couldn't quite see the point of the book, though I do accept that it has some good features: for example, there are good descriptive passages which give a nice feel for London life at the end of the eighteenth century; and Chevalier seems to have done her research about both Blake and Astley thoroughly. These strengths, though, don't outweigh my disappointment that Chevalier missed an opportunity by not bringing Blake more centrally into the book (perhaps making him one of the narrators, as she does with Anning and Philpot in Remarkable Creatures).
I might well read other Chevalier novels in the hope that they are more like Remarkable Creatures than Burning Bright, but I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone who wants to read interesting historical fiction.
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