Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier; published 2007 by HarperCollins
Ok, I have to confess. I didn’t just read Burning Bright. I actually finished it on June 9—exactly a month ago. I never posted about it because I was so excited to jump into Bird by Bird and then The Uncommon Reader. But I still really enjoyed it, so better late than never.
Our protagonist is young Jem Kelloway, whose Irish family leaves their innocent, simple life in the Piddle Valley to make their way in the harsh streets of London. Jem’s father, Thomas, is a talented carpenter and he took traveling circus owner Philip Astley’s comment to heart when he offhandedly remarked that if the Kelloways ever ended up in London, Astley would hire Thomas immediately. Of course, Astley is astounded when they actually show up and hires him only for minor jobs at first. The family—including Jem’s mother, Anne, and sister, Maisie—makes do in a tiny apartment. Jem helps his father with some of his carpentry, but escapes the crowded little apartment to wander around London with his new pal, Maggie, a street-wise girl with a sad secret. The two epitomize the differences between town and country, experience and innocence.
Next door to the Kelloways live Mr. and Mrs. Blake—William Blake, that is. They run into the friendly and eccentric Blakes occasionally at first, and then strike up a friendship with the older couple. Mr. Blake shows the children his printing press and the beautiful books he has created. He allows them to see the first copies of Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. The two friends have a wonderful conversation about opposites. Maggie argues that the city is the opposite of the country. Jem says that he’s never quite understood opposites, and she explains the very simple concept. But Jem is illustrating a different point:
“What’s funny about opposites be that wet and dry both has water, boy and girl be about people, Heaven and Hell be the places you go when you die. They all has something in common. So they an’t completely different from each other the way people think. Having the one don’t mean t’other be gone.”
Jem is onto it here, but the whole idea is revealed later at the funeral of Mr. Blake’s mother.
“‘The world,’ [Jem] said. ‘What lies between two opposites is us.’
“Mr. Blake smiled. ‘Yes, my boy; yes, my girl. The tension between contraries is what makes us ourselves. We have not just one, but the other too, mixing and clashing and sparking inside us. Not just light, but dark. Not just at peace, but at war. Not just innocent, but experienced….It is a lesson we could all do well to learn, to see all the world in a flower.'”
The French Revolution, taking place just across the Channel, begins to affect their lives. The English government fears that the English will be incited to rebellion as well. People in England are desperate to prove their allegiance to King George III, and desperate to expose others who are not loyal. William Blake was a supporter of the French revolution, although he drew the line at the rampant murder of innocent French aristocrats. A mob comes to the Kelloways’ and the Blakes’ one night and demands that both Thomas Kelloway and William Blake sign a declaration of loyalty to the king. In response, Maisie begins to recite Blake’s poem “London”:
“I wander through each chartered street
Near where the chartered Thames does flow
And 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 ever ban
The mind-forged manacles I hear.”
Mr. Blake recites the rest of the poem, and before the crowd turns violent, Jem and Maggie take it upon themselves to draw the crowd away by throwing the garbage that lined the streets of London at them. They successfully draw the crowd away and, while hiding, Maggie confesses her secret to Jem: she had once killed a man who had tried to attack her. It was in self-defense, but Jem is shocked by the news.
The Kelloways decide that London is not, after all, the place for them. They pack up and move back to their little town in Ireland. All of them but Maisie, who stays behind so that her parents wouldn’t know that she is pregnant by Philip Astley’s son, John. Maisie lives with the Blakes as their assistant. Maggie discovers her there and the two decide that they both miss people in Piddletrenthide. They make their way to Ireland and Maisie is able to have her baby at home. Maggie and Jem are reunited and Maggie presents him with two presents that Mr. Blake wanted them to have: Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. But Maggie had jumbled them on the ride over. Which book was for who? It didn’t matter, because both existed between the two opposites.
I really like Tracy Chevalier’s writing. Although Burning Bright isn’t as good as Girl With a Pearl Earring, I still enjoyed it. I love the fact that she creates new meaning for pieces of art through her stories: the famous painting by Johannes Vermeer, the beautiful poetry of William Blake. I hope I’m not presuming too much, but I sense in Ms. Chevalier a kindred spirit, a fellow admirer of art and history and literature. This draws me to her works. Tracy Chevalier is the type of author I’d love to be someday…in my dreams.