Burning Bright (Paperback)
Penguin Books, 9780452289079, 336pp.
Publication Date: February 26, 2008
In the waning days of eighteenth-century London, poet, artist, and printer William Blake works in obscurity as England is rocked by the shock waves of the French Revolution. Next door, the Kellaway family has just moved in, and country boy Jem Kellaway strikes up a tentative friendship with street-savvy Maggie Butterfield. As their stories intertwine with Blake's, the two children navigate the confusing and exhilarating path to adolescence, and inspire the poet to create the work that enshrined his genius.
About the Author
"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 I 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."
Tracy Chevalier is the New York Times bestselling author of six previous novels, including Girl with a Pearl Earring, which has been translated into thirty-nine languages and made into an Oscar-nominated film. Her latest novel is The Last Runaway. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., she lives in London with her husband and son.
Praise For Burning Bright: A Novel…
"Evokes entire landscapes...a master of voices."
—New York Times Book Review (on Falling Angels)
"Absorbing...[Chevalier] creates a world reminiscent of a Vermeer interior: suspended in a particular moment, it transcends its time and place."
—The New Yorker (on Girl With a Pearl Earring)
“Chevalier admirably weaves historical figures and actual events into a compelling narrative.”
—San Francisco Chronicle (on Remarkable Creatures)
"Chevalier's signature talent lies in bringing alive the ordinary day-to-dayness of the past...lovingly evoked."
—Elle (on Burning Bright)
"Chevalier's ringing prose is as radiantly efficient as well-tended silver."
—Entertainment Weekly (on Falling Angels)
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
- 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, and then when Jem and Maggie spy on him having sex in his backyard. 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." 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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 in the book? What did it reveal about Dick Butterfield's character when he signed? About Thomas Kellaway's when he refused?
- 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." What are your reasons for reading historical fiction?