The historical novelist who decides to write about a famous personage from the past has two possible strategies. Maybe more than two, but in the case of Tracy Chevalier’s Burning Bright, which boasts the gaudy bauble of William Blake among its attractions, at least two may be discerned—the one she chose, and the better one she did not.
The better part lies in rough handling. The author takes up the historical personality like a doll in old-style clothing and, based on historical research and the writer’s own sensibility, bends it this way and that to bring it to a semblance of life suitable for the story at hand.
This requires bold decisions about what kind of person the famous figure really was, fixing, thereby, a specific individual in a specific time. Custer in Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man is an example of such treatment. So is the Emancipator in Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, or the entire Roman imperial family in Robert Graves’ I, Claudius.
The other strategy is more reverential. A glamorous if indistinct character is carefully constructed using a few well-known traits—in Blake’s instance, sensuality, mysticism, radical politics, general artsy-fartsiness. This wicker man, by dint of the historical figure’s real attainments, then gains an unearned gravity around which orbit the pale little made-up characters that are the story’s real heroes and heroines.
Such is the William Blake of Burning Bright. The neighbor children who are the main actors in the novel catch a glimpse of Blake making daytime love to his wife in the garden of his London rental. They see him talking to his dead brother, wearing a red hat in support of the French Revolution, working the printing press in his parlor, chanting poetry in the street.
Those who’ve read so much as a one-paragraph account of Blake’s life will learn nothing new about the great British poet and artist, nor will they gain any provoking insights to chew over. All they’ll get is a mildly diverting story in which Blake looms much like the monster in a slasher flick, little seen but always ready to fulfill his ordained plot functions.
This is really too bad. Chevalier first came to notice with 1999’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring, a haunting historical set in the household of Jan Vermeer, the great 17th century Dutch painter. She enjoys a reputation for bringing bygone times to vivid life—a talent that’s the most winning thing about Burning Bright.
Blake is a secondary character in the story of the Kellaway family, humble chair makers from the countryside lured to a better life in London after the tragic death of an oldest son. Father Thomas goes to work in the company of Philip Astley, a circus impresario, while mother Anne tries to adjust to grief and her new surroundings.
Teens Jem and Maisie, country mice making their way in Londontown, permit Chevalier to treat readers to a compelling ground-level view of the sprawling, reeking, heartless metropolis, crawling with thieves, drunken workmen, desperate whores, bloodthirsty monarchists, circa 1792.
Befriended by a streetwise urchin named Maggie, they adapt to city life, confront cutthroats and seducers, come under the kindly tutelage of Blake and his wife, move, rather too easily, over the rocky ground of third-act complications to the smooth path of a bucolic denouement.
Chevalier’s prose is not rigorous enough for this to be considered as a literary novel, yet the story is plotted with insufficient sophistication to make it much of a popular entertainment, either. Multiplicity of incident, it should be said, is not the same thing as “plot.” The London street scenes are presented in strong pictures for the reader’s delectation, but images of character and action are too often drawn neither from life nor imagination but from the movies.
“They gazed at each other, until Miss Devine let herself sink back into the shadows, like the moon disappearing behind clouds.” That’s one image more likely seen at the multiplex than anywhere else. Here’s another: “His words froze Miss Pellham, her mouth agape, her eyes wide. Then, as if a strong string were attached to her waist and had been given a great tug, she flew backward into the front room, slamming the door behind her.”
As these quotes show, Chevalier’s language and descriptions are also overly dependent on visceral reactions: “froze,” “mouth agape,” “eyes wide.” Or how’s this for a gut reaction: “Maggie had not heard these words spoken aloud, and they had the effect of taking her clenched stomach and twisting it, knocking the wind out of her as effectively as if Charlie had punched her.”
This sounds less like the response of a working-class girl in the 1790s than a scene from last week’s CSI. I don’t know about you, but these kinds of visual anachronisms and lax stylistic constructions keep yanking me out of the past and undermining the credibility of the characters and their dilemma.
Chevalier is an entertaining writer, the Kellaways and their friends are likable characters, London is a pungent presence. If you squint your eyes, Burning Bright is a painless enough way to spend a few hours. But that’s not the same thing as saying it’s a very good novel.