A historical by Canadian scholar Warner (Blake and the Language of Art, not reviewed) depicts the life and marriage of William Blake (1757-1827) from the perspective of his wife.
Famous for his verse and illustrations, Blake was in his day equally well known as a visionary and free spirit. Like many such, he was widely regarded by his contemporaries as an eccentric (or worse), but he had the good fortune to be supported throughout his career by a loyal and highly capable wife. Catherine Blake (neé Boucher) was descended from French Huguenots who settled in England in the late 17th century. She and Blake first met in a churchyard in 1781, and she knew almost from the start that she would marry him. Catherine’s story—told largely through journal entries and recollections given to Frederick Tatham, Blake’s literary executor and biographer—portrays Blake as a (largely) sympathetic husband and highly original artist who was at the center of a brilliant coterie of painters, poets, and intellectuals. Catherine, as Blake’s collaborator (she hand-tinted many of his illustrations), was accepted as an equal by both her husband and his colleagues and thus became acquainted with the likes of Henry Fuseli (the morbid Swiss painter and world-class womanizer), Joseph Priestly (the chemist), Mary Wollstonecraft (the novelist and feminist), John Varley (the artist and astrologer), and William Hayley (the greatest poet of his day, now long forgotten and deservedly unread). Although Blake’s story has the usual artist’s mixture of dueling egos and chronic poverty, in Catherine’s telling the sharp edges are smoothed out under the soft light of affection, fittingly so for a widow who receives nightly visitations from her late husband’s affectionate ghost.
A pleasant account of one of England’s stranger geniuses: Warner’s first fiction has a good grasp on the atmosphere and idioms of the day, though it may be too specific for those unfamiliar with 18th-century British lit.