Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier is a historical novel based around the life of William Blake, and particularly a couple of years he spent in Lambeth on the South Bank of the Thames.
In fact Blake is quite a peripheral character. The novel traces the lives of a Dorset family who have come to live in London, and especially tells the stories of their two children. This focus makes the narrative simple, easy to read and quite suitable to Blake and the themes of Romanticism that are touched on. Blake makes several appearances, first dressed in a red hat that shows his sympathies with the French Revolution, and later when the mob threaten to make him sign an oath of allegiance to the King. He also makes pertinent appearances in the lives of the children, intruding wisely into their stories of romance and betrayal.
The narrative threads are interesting, the main characters sympathetic, and Chevalier evokes life in the London of 1792 with some vivid detail. The novel centres round Astley’s circus, which introduces colour, and it shows the lives of the working urban poor, their occupations and privations. There are a range of characters, and whilst there is some melodrama and caricature – in the portrayal of John Astley, the Butterfields and Miss Pelham – this does not make the novel any less entertaining: as well as character, there is a broad range of settings.
In her afterword Chevalier recommends a yet un-published biography of Blake by Michael Phillips, Blake and the Terror, and I would certainly be interested in looking at that – a cursory glance at Wiki tells me that George 3rd was mad by this time – 1792 – so it does beggar belief that the English were so keen to support another foreign king!