I’m afraid I cannot read any book by Tracy Chevalier without thinking of the purity of the character she created in Girl with a Pearl Earring. Unfortunately, I haven’t read a book by her that was as good, but I keep hoping for one.
In Burning Bright, set in 18th century London, Jem Kellaway, a young lad from the country, moves with his family into Lambeth. They settle into a row house owned by Kellaway’s new employer, next door to the poet and artist William Blake and his wife.
Jem befriends a London street urchin named Maggie Butterfield, and they spend some time with the Blakes. These two children are meant to represent Blake’s ideas of innocence and experience.
Jem’s father has taken a carpentry job with Astley’s Circus. Unfortunately, Jem’s sister Maisie soon attracts the eye of John Astley, the rapscallion son of the circus owner.
Most of the action of the novel centers around the unease generated in England by the French Revolution. Blake’s unusual publications have made him appear to be seditious, and he and his family are threatened as the hysteria rises.
Unfortunately, the characters and story are not very interesting, and William Blake is almost incidental to the novel. The novel does nothing to make the mysterious Blake more understandable to us.