Poetry lovers, or really anyone who has taken an introduction to English literature class, will recognize the title of this Tracy Chevalier novel as a line from the William Blake poem “The Tyger”:
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
“The Tyger” is probably the most famous poem in Blake’s classic poetry collection Songs of Innocence and Experience, first printed by Blake himself in 1789. In Burning Bright, Chevalier borrows heavily from that collection’s themes and even borrows the author to be a character in her story.
The novel centers around siblings Maisie and Jem Kellaway, who have just arrived in London with their parents from the small Dorset town of Piddletrenthide (one of the cutest names ever, and home today to a booming population of 647 individuals!). The Kellaways are naive to the ways of the big city but soon meet the vibrant yet cynical Maggie Butterfield, who knows her way around London and befriends the newcomers. Maggie’s father is an opportunist if not quite a conman, and Maggie, for all her bravado, seems desperate for real friendship and compassion. In contrast to Dick Butterfield is Maisie and Jem’s father Thomas Kellaway, an assiduous chairmaker whose only wish is for his family to be happy. Having brought them to London to escape the tragic death of another child back home, Thomas does anything he can to please his wife Anne, who is torn with grief. Relief comes to her in the oddest of places: the local circus. Watching a slack rope artist perform (think tight rope walking with a not-so-tight rope, combined with gymnastics), Anne feels comforted. “Anne Kellaway stared at Miss Devine, expecting to see her crash to the ground as her son Tommy had from the pear tree. . . .But Miss Devine did not fall. Indeed, she seemed incapable of it. For the first time in the weeks since her son’s death, Anne Kellaway felt the shard of grief lodged in her heart stop biting.”
Jem and Maggie become close and find distraction in Jem’s neighbors, William and Catherine Blake. Blake is a writer and printer who scandalizes the neighborhood by outwardly showing support for the French revolutionaries. This was pretty radical politics for the time: if the French could overthrow their king, then what was to stop the English from doing the same? Not only that, but the Blakes were Dissenters, or Christians who had separated from the Church of England. Maisie asks her worldly friend Maggie if that means Blake will go to Hell:
“Dunno–maybe. . . .We’re all going to Hell, I expect. I’ll wager there is no Heaven.”
“Maggie, don’t say that!” Maisie cried.
“Well, maybe there’s a Heaven for you, Miss Piddle. You’ll be awfully lonely there, though.”
“I don’t see why there has to be just one or t’other,” Jem said. “Can’t there be something that’s more a bit of both?”
“That’s the world, Jem,” Maggie said.
What is innocence and what is experience? That’s the theme of this novel and the answer, as you can imagine, is that nobody is just one or the other. Maggie and Jem each play both roles throughout the story, shifting and flowing as much as the water in the Thames. Maisie is solidly in the “innocent” camp for most of the novel, but by the end she shifts to “experience.” (For spoiler, read Blake’s “The Sick Rose.”)
I enjoy Tracy Chevalier’s novels for their ability to bring a distant time and place to life. The sights and sounds of London, the magic of the circus, the grandeur of Westminster Abbey: all these elements bring the reader into Jem and Maggie’s world and make 18th Century London tangible. Still, this isn’t her best novel. For one thing, the character of William Blake could have been more instrumental in the novel’s action. With a few minor exceptions, Blake acts as an observer or a provacateur for the children. This is interesting, but Chevalier definitely had the opportunity to do more with that character. To be fair, she is likely mimicking Blake’s voice as observer in his Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, so I have to give her points there. I still wanted more of Blake the man, though. Chevalier also belabors the innocence vs. experience theme a bit much. She makes sure to hammer her point home in the final pages in case you missed the many other not-so-oblique references. Finally, there are some elements that don’t really go anywhere, such as Blake’s recurring references to his brother Robert. Jem discovers (long after the reader has figured it out) that Robert is dead. But. . .so what? Robert, dead or alive, doesn’t add anything significant to the story.
One bonus for this novel is that it inspired me to re-read Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. Although I’ve read many of the poems many times, I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and read the entire collection back-to-back. When students are taught these poems in literature class, they are often paired together; for example, “The Lamb” is taught alongside “The Tyger” in the most obvious juxtaposition of innocence and experience.
Simple and pleasant, the songs of innocence may not impress modern day readers, but recall that these are lyrics poems that perhaps were sung, and Blake was not only a writer but a printer and an artist. He illuminated his poetry with original etchings that work in conjunction with his lyrics. In a way, I feel sort of cheated that I studied his poetry without the benefit of the experience-enhancing artwork, as the words are only half of what the poet produced. I’ve includes some images from the original manuscripts in this review for you to enjoy.
The tension between innocence and experience, and the idea that we can be both at the same time, is even evident in some of Blake’s choices. The author himself had a hard time deciding whether “The Little Girl Lost” and “The Little Girl Found” belonged under Innocence or Experience and frequently moved them back and forth between the two books. Suggesting a sexual awakening, these poems show the transition from innocence to experience.
Perhaps my favorite poem in the collection is “London,” which is a major downer because it points out how gross London can be if you really look around.
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
There’s crying chimney sweeps (most likely children, like in “The Chimney Sweeper”), there’s a cursing harlot, a crying baby, bloody palace walls. Basically, the seedy underbelly. Was Blake saying London as a whole sucks? Or just that there’s a dark side? Blake was definitely a champion of the common man as his poetry and his support of the French revolution attest. He lived in London most of his life and no doubt saw his share of misery or “marks of woe.” Maybe all of London doesn’t suck, but it sucks for poor people.
To sum up:
Tracy Chevalier’s Burning Bright = 3.5 stars
William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience = 4 stars
William Blake’s illuminated Songs of Innocence and Experience (facsimile to be found at the British Library) = 5 stars
Rounding to 4 stars for the whole kit and caboodle!