I've always been a fan of historical fiction. Honestly, I think that if history class was taught with high quality historical fiction people would remember more of it that "In fourteen hundred ninety two Columbus sailed the ocean blue" and "I can not tell a lie." At any rate, I'm glad to have discovered a new-to-me author of historical fiction, Tracey Chevalier. In Burning Bright she paints a lively picture of life in England at the turn of the nineteenth century. The story centers on Jem, a country boy brought to the city by the death of his brother and the lure of the circus, and Maggie, a poor city girl from a rather shady family hustling to make ends meet. Two more different people are hard to imagine, but they strike up a friendship that feels completely believable.
After Jem's brother falls from a tree, breaking his neck, his family is left devastated. His father, a chair-maker, come to London from the small town of Piddletrenthide (which is an actual place-I looked it up) after being offered a job by the owner of a traveling circus that came through on their way back to London for the season. They move into the area of London known as Lambeth, and discover that their neighbor is none other than William Blake, poet and artist. The year is 1792, and France is in the throes of a revolution. This makes the monarchy in England very nervous, and there are soon bands of men roaming the city forcing people to sign loyalty oaths to king and country. This provides a backdrop as Jem, his sister Maisie, Maggie, and the rest of their families struggle to maintain their moral footing.
While Blake is an important character in the arc of the novel, the most vivid characters are the ordinary people living in Lambeth. Chevalier takes on issues of class, poverty, prostitution, the treatment of girls and women, and the political climate of the period in a way that I felt I was living in that place in that time myself. Isn't that what we ask of historical fiction? The parallels between the uber-patriotism of the Londoners during Blake's time and the unthinking, unquestioning patriotism that was a hallmark of the Bush era were not lost on me. It seems that anytime the government feels threatened, dissent and free-speech are quashed, and a certain amount of unreasonableness ensues. Like I said, maybe if history was taught using historical fiction we as a people would be less likely to repeat it.