Burning Bright follows the Kellaway family as they leave behind tragedy in rural Dorset and come to late 18th-century London. As they move in next door to the radical painter/poet William Blake, and take up work for a near-by circus impresario, the youngest family member gets to know a girl his age. Embodying opposite characteristics – Maggie Butterfield is a dark-haired, streetwise extrovert, Jem Kellaway a quiet blond introvert – the children form a strong bond while getting to know their unusual neighbor and his wife.
Set against the backdrop of a city nervous of the revolution gone sour across the Channel in France, Burning Bright explores the states of innocence and experience just as Blake takes on similar themes in his best-known poems, Songs of Innocence and of Experience.
ABOUT TRACY CHEVALIER
“I was born and grew up in Washington, DC. After getting a BA in English from Oberlin College (Ohio), I moved to London, England in 1984. I intended to stay 6 months; I’m still here.
“As a kid I’d often said I wanted to be a writer because I loved books and wanted to be associated with them. I wrote the odd story in high school, but it was only in my twenties that I started writing ‘real’ stories, at night and on weekends. Sometimes I wrote a story in a couple evenings; other times it took me a whole year to complete one.
“Once I took a night class in creative writing, and a story I’d written for it was published in a London-based magazine called Fiction. I was thrilled, even though the magazine folded 4 months later.
I worked as a reference book editor for several years until 1993 when I left my job and did a year-long MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich (England). My tutors were the English novelists Malcolm Bradbury and Rose Tremain. For the first time in my life I was expected to write every day, and I found liked it. I also finally had an idea I considered ‘big’ enough to fill a novel. I began The Virgin Blue during that year, and continued it once the course was over, juggling writing with freelance editing.
“An agent is essential to getting published. I found my agent Jonny Geller through dumb luck and good timing. A friend from the MA course had just signed on with him and I sent my manuscript of The Virgin Blue mentioning my friend’s name. Jonny was just starting as an agent and needed me as much as I needed him. Since then he’s become a highly respected agent in the UK and I’ve gone along for the ride.”
- Discuss your first impressions of the main characters. Who did you like best initially? Which, if any, surprised you by the end? Whose transformation was most complete?
- The Kellaway and Butterfield families, though very different, also have some similarities. Compare and contrast the parental relationships, as well as the sibling relationships, within the two families.
- Throughout the novel, attention is paid to the differences between city and country, with Maggie and Jem each representing their home turf. Which does Chevalier portray more sympathetically—city (Maggie) or country (Jem)? In what ways?
- Why do you think Chevalier chose to set her novel in 1792? Why not a few years earlier, or later?
- William Blake’s first two appearances in the novel are quite striking—first, in his bonnet rouge on page 19, and then when Jem and Maggie spy on him having sex in his backyard (page 27). What significance does this have for him as a character? What did you expect of him after these prominent glimpses?
- Before reading Burning Bright, were you familiar with Blake’s work? How did it color your experience of the novel?
- Read and discuss the poem from which the book’s title is taken, “The Tyger.” (An excerpt is on page 275.) What is its significance in terms of the novel and the characters? Why do you think Chevalier chose a phrase from this poem for her title?
- Two of Blake’s most famous works are Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. How do those works relate to the characters of Jem and Maggie?
- Life in Georgian times was unpredictable and dangerous—several characters lose family members, and fire is a constant threat. How does Chevalier use this precariousness to enrich the story? What role does economics—and class—play?
- Reread the conversation about opposites on pages 71–73, and discuss your own take on the subject. Which character do you agree with most?
- Burning Bright is set in and around Astley’s Circus, a popular real-life attraction in 1790s London. How does Tracy Chevalier use the circus as a character? What does it represent?
- On page 86, Philip Astley tells Blake that the two men are in the same business: “We are both dealers in illusion.” In what ways is he correct, and how is he wrong? What purpose do these two characters serve in the novel?
- On page 199, Laura Devine tells Maisie, “What you want is not worth half the value of what you’ve still got.” What did she mean by that? How might it resonate with Maisie later in the novel? And for the other principal characters?
- Beginning on page 216, Maggie tries exceptionally hard to preserve Maisie’s virginity, eventually turning to William Blake for help. Why does she go this far when nobody else seems to care?
- How much did you know about the political background of the story? Would you have signed the loyalty oath like the one on page 236? What did it reveal about Dick Butterfield’s character when he signed? About Thomas Kellaway’s when he refused?
- When it is finally revealed on page 261, how does Maggie’s experience on Cut-Throat Lane color her character? Why does Jem react the way he does?
- Chevalier has said, “I like writing about the past because I come to it fresh and clean. I feel more comfortable analyzing it and deciding what is important than I do about the present. Also, I live this contemporary life every day—I don’t feel the need to write about it too. I would rather write about something that I don’t know and want to learn about. I’m not an historian and so when I choose a time to write about—seventeenth-century Holland, early twentieth-century England, fifteenth-century France—I know nothing about it and so have no preconceptions or prejudices. I can be more objective. I learn a lot too, which keeps my mind active.” What are your reasons for reading historical fiction?