Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
What school child, at least during my time, does not remember committing to memory William Blake’s poem entitled Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright? Tracy Chevalier has crafted an unusual tale of England in the years 1792 and 1793 in which William Blake is a significant yet a background character in her tribute to Blake called Burning Bright.
Tracy Chevalier’s research is always impeccable as noted in her famous story entitled Girl with a Pearl Earring which was turned into a motion picture as well. In Burning Bright, she has brought to life characters that actually lived during that time to surround her story of the Kellaway family who moved to London from the outlying district of Piddletrenthide to better their lives. Thomas Kellaway is a chairmaker who specializes in high-quality chairs. His wife Anne and their two children Jem and Maisie joined him to relocate in London after the sudden death of their son Tom when he fell from a tree.
The Kellaways were able to get lodgings in London through the kindness of John Astley, an actual character from that time, who operated a successful circus and was highly esteemed by the patrons of his entertainment. Astley recognized the ability of Thomas Kellaway and offered him a job with the circus creating scenery and furniture to be used in the circus skits.
The Kellaways’ next door neighbor is William Blake and his wife, who keep to themselves although they are always gracious when they meet up with their neighbors. I was under the impression that the story was to be about William Blake but that is not the case. He is a minor though important character in the novel.
We are mostly drawn in to the affairs of the young people. Jem becomes infatuated with Maggie Butterfield, an extroverted town girl who seems to know her way around and shows Jem the important landmarks of London. Maggie’s father is a wastrel whose dishonest practices put money in his pocket at the expense of those he sets out to cheat. Maggie prefers to stay away from home as often as she can.
Young Maisie Kellaway becomes smitten with John Astley’s son Philip, a circus star who has an eye for the ladies and is usually up to no good. Maisie’s story is said but she has Maggie Butterfield who becomes somewhat of a heroine reaching out to the newcomers who have been treated unscrupulously. Maggie herself needs protection and is taken in temporarily by William Blake and his wife who sense her plight. She is exposed then to William Blake’s works Songs of Innocence and Songs of Expereience which she shares with her good friend Jem Kellaway.
An underlying thread runs constantly through the story letting the reader know that William Blake is ever present. Some of his poetry is quoted by the main characters. He is pictured as somewhat of an oddity and a recluse, but he is always pleasant. The reader will undoubtedly want to look further into the life of William Blake to discover his true character.
Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier (2007)