Tracy Chevalier brilliantly brought to life the 17th-century world of the Netherlands in the fictional biography of Johannes VerMeer in GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING. Now, in BURNING BRIGHT, she turns her spell-weaving skills toward painter, poet and visionary William Blake in 18th-century London.
Maisie Kellaway, daughter of a woodworker, has just moved with her older brother Jem and her parents from a North Country village to an upscale London row house owned by her father's new employer, Phillip Astley, of the famous Astley Circus. Her father, a skilled chair maker, seeks a better life for his family by working as a carpenter for the circus. Maisie is befriended by street-wise Maggie Butterfield, the daughter of a con artist and rogue who lives in a rough nearby neighborhood. Maggie is a few years older than Maisie and has her eye on Jem.
The Kellaways live next door to William Blake and his wife, who are shunned yet regarded with fearful respect by their neighbors. The story is set against the far-off rumblings of the French Revolution, a cause in which Blake seems to sympathize. As a poet and an engraver, Blake's obscure prolific publications perplex even the most erudite Englishmen, but they seem to impart the sense of lust for freedom and equality roiling on the continent that the fervid Royalists of the age see as seditious.
Maisie, Jem and Maggie begin to spend time in the Blake garden, as their landlady won't allow renters in her formal backyard. Blake does not outwardly try to influence the young people, but he and his wife encourage them to learn to read, and his poetry is all they have at hand aside from the Bible.
Blake's role in the book, while pivotal, is not as central to the story as was VerMeer's in GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING. Servitude and class distinctions are not as strictly drawn in the late 18th century as they were in the 1600s. As the 1700s draw to a close, a new awareness of the power of the masses is on the horizon. As the French Revolution grows, so does its threat of spreading to England. When Maggie's Royalist boss at the vinegar factory intimidates his employees into signing a petition in support of King George, she manages to slip away without doing so. She heads for the local pub where her mother, father and brother hang out.
The boss shows up at the pub and declares that dissenters to signing the petition are traitors to the crown and may suffer the same consequences as the French Revolutionaries if they don't support the king. When a few in the pub, including Maisie's father, stand up to the man, they are threatened with a visit to their homes. Maggie is shocked when her own father so easily bends to the will of the petitioner. She follows Maisie and her father to their home. Soon, a torch-bearing throng marches down the street where the Kellaways and Blake live. They confront Blake at his doorway, and when Blake staunchly refuses to sign, a riot breaks out. What follows seals the fate of our young heroes.
Chevalier is adept at evoking a powerful sense of time and place. In GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING, one could almost see the muted hues of the city of Delft, which so influenced VerMeer's paintings. In BURNING BRIGHT, Chevalier conjures the sights and sounds of 1792 London, shrouded in fog and coal smoke, and bustling with street vendors, charlatans, prostitutes and thieves. She captures ordinary people at the dawn of the radical changes in social, moral and political opinion that will shape the centuries to come.
--- Reviewed by Roz Shea