Tuesday, 20 January 2015

How Burning Bright Helped Me Fall in Love With Blake All Over Again

Burning Bright
Tracy Chevalier
2007 (This edition 2014 Borough Press)

Towards the end of last year on the anniversary of Blake's birthday, Borough Press asked people on twitter to share their favourite Blake poem. I said that 'The Sick Rose' is my favourite and that I'm aware Freud would have a field day about it. Clearly the lovely people at Borough Press took pity on me and my serious need for psychoanalysis and I was chosen as one of the lucky people to receive the new edition of Burning Bright, Tracy Chevalier's 2007 novel. Isn't it a beauty? 

I finished reading the novel last week and I obviously loved it - Tracy Chevalier remains one of my favourite contemporary novelists. Aside from the writing, the plot and the characters, what I loved most about the reading experience was how much it made me crave Blake's poetry. The short snatches from his Songs of Innocence and Experience that are woven into the tale had me recalling half-forgotten lines and verses of 'The Divine Image', 'The Tyger', 'The Clod and the Pebble' and so many others. It's been a long time since I've delved into his poems, but now I think it's high time I explored them once again.

Let's take a trip down memory lane...Blake has been one of my favourite poets since college. I studied the Songs for A Level English Lit, a course which I started with a dislike for poetry that verged on hatred. I blame GCSE English for that (sorry AQA, your anthology destroys any and all passion for poetry). As a typical seventeen year old I moaned and sulked when I saw poetry on the syllabus, even more so when it was 'old, boring' poetry. On my first read of the Songs I was already retracting my initial assumptions, by the second read I was beginning to see what the fuss was all about, and by the third, well, I was in love. Move over Willy Shakes, there's a new fella in town.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Burning Bright imagines London in Blake's time - a lively, dangerous city dealing with the repercussions from the French Revolution. The novel focuses on the Kellaway's, a grief-stricken family who move from the Dorset countryside to the city where everything seems alien. Young Jem Kellaway meets Maggie Butterfield, a local streetwise girl, and together they explore London, continuously moving away from innocence towards experience. Blake is the Kellaway's neighbour. He is set up as a slightly odd man, powerful, intelligent and creative, occasionally seen wearing the bonnet rouge. Maybe it was the bonnet rouge that put me in the mood for his poems.

As ever Chevalier expertly blends fact and fiction to create a truly gripping story. There's nothing explosive that happens, there isn't a giant plot twist or a ton of tension building up to one point. It's just a good story, with brilliantly imagined characters, that keeps moving forward and leaves you wondering what happens to the characters long after you've finished the final page. The poetry is just the cherry on the cake.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a pressing engagement with a certain gentlemen and his poems.

Have you read Burning Bright? Do you enjoy Blake's poetry?



  1. I do like Blake's poetry. My enthusiasm for Chevalier has waned a bit after the last book I read by her, but Burning Bright sounds like a book I would enjoy, so maybe I'll give her another try. The poetry would definitely be a plus.

  2. I loved Burning Bright. I came at it completely unaware of Blake's poetry, other than as a guy I'd heard wrote some...so I felt like I was discovering something when I read this book! Great review!

  3. Thank you! I'm so pleased to hear you loved the novel too and it's great it led you to Blake. For me it was definitely a welcome rediscovery.

  4. Burning Bright is certainly one of her better novels. Which one did you read that changed how you felt about her? I'd be interested to know if it's one I didn't get on with so well either. Poetry is always a plus!

  5. It was The Last Runaway. I thought the characters were a little flat.

  6. LOL I love the way you explained how you think you were selected to read the book. Having studied Freud, I tend to agree with your assumption of his analysis lol. Great review of the book, too.


© Lit Nerd. All rights reserved.
Blogger Templates by pipdig