A Rich Tapestry Woven in Blake’s London

"Burning Bright" - By Tracy Chevalier (Dutton) - Out Now

In an emblematic moment from Tracy Chevalier’s latest novel “Burning Bright,” two children read together the richly indeterminate opening lines to William Blake’s poem “The Tyger”: “Tyger tyger, burning bright / In the forests of the night / What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”

“What’s ‘symmetry’?” questions one Jem Kellaway, replicating in microcosm the now well-established project of each Chevalier novel: to parse out the complexities of a work of art. As in her depiction of Johannes Vermeer’s city of Delft in her 2000 breakaway bestseller “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” Chevalier here evocatively imagines a fictive London surrounding Blake’s creation of the “Songs of Innocence and of Experience.”

The year is 1792 and the Kellaway family has just arrived in London from the village of Piddletrenthide in southwest England. Having recently buried a son, the Kellaway parents hope that the urban milieu will provide a respite from sorrowful memories and crushing rural poverty for their surviving children, 12-year-old Jem and his 14-year-old sister Maisie.

Jem’s father finds steady carpentry work at circus impresario Philip Astley’s amphitheater on the outskirts of London. Jem and Maisie, having grown up in a community of thirty families, thus find themselves loosed on the raucous streets of the burgeoning metropolis.

The street-smart and scrappy Maggie Butterfield takes Jem under her wing and the two run the gauntlet of 18th-century London’s diversions, singing along to the bawdy songs of hurdy-gurdy players and tasting beer in pubs where flies circle the mugs and idlers hotly debate the increasing radicalism of the revolution in France.

They also befriend their neighbor, the enigmatic Blake, whom they have spied playing a prelapsarian Adam to his wife’s Eve in the garden.

Blake shares with the children his completed collection “Songs of Innocence,” and Maggie is struck by the opposition she sees between her own life experience and the pastoral idyll of childhood in the poems—mothers gazing lovingly upon their sleeping infants and so on—and the hardships that come with age. Having experienced hardship in Piddletrenthide, Jem is not so convinced of the opposition.

“Dunno as they be opposites exactly,” he muses.

In an intriguing speculative move, Chevalier places Jem and Maggie as muses of sorts, helping the poet to work towards a new artistic vision. Gazing at the Thames, Blake poses the question of the children that if one bank represents innocence and the other experience, “what is the middle of the river?”

As Jem and Maggie partake in their meandering adventures, Chevalier presents them as spectators to a veritable litany of social injustices. We see Maisie and other young women who seem not to have received the old adage that a reformed rake does not make the best husband, desperate women turned “gaunt and pockmarked” whores, heartrending cries from Bedlam.

These injustices are of course akin to those described in Blake’s “Songs of Experience” poem “London,” which Jem overhears Mr. Blake reciting: “I wander through each chartered street...And mark in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe.”

In her prose, Chevalier lyrically captures the prevailing mood of London as a lurid “yellow light from the pub staining the fog the color of phlegm.” Yet she has this darkness intermittently cut through by the explosion of fireworks from Astley’s circus, “burning bright in the night sky.”

The explosions can have a terribly destructive effect but they can also bring peals of laughter. There are moments of joy, then, in “Burning Bright,” amidst seemingly interminable sorrow.

“I don’t see why there has to be just the one or t’other,” Jem suggests, referring to the binary of heaven and hell, but also to that of innocence and experience, country and city. “Can’t there be something that’s more a bit of both?”

“That’s the world, Jem,” Maggie sagely replies.

That’s the world, then, of Blake’s “London,” but also a world that is very much Chevalier’s own.

—Reviewer Alison S. Cohn can be reached at