A colorful historical novel considers the perils of life in 18th-century England.
Georgian London might itself be the biggest character in Chevalier’s latest (after The Lady and the Unicorn, 2004, etc.). Rogues and bounders, larger-than-life benefactors and unworldly country folk populate a story that gives prominence to a fictional portrait of William Blake but devotes many of its pages to the broad social panorama—circuses and mustard factories, Bedlam and Bunhill Fields Burying Ground. The Kellaway family has just arrived from rural Dorset after a death in the family. Thomas Kellaway, a chairmaker, has been offered work by circus entrepreneur Philip Astley: The Kellaway’s son, Jem, assists his father with the carpentering, when not distracted by street-wise Maggie Butterfield; pretty daughter Maisie yearns for Astley’s handsome, heartless son John. The Blakes live nearby in Lambeth, and Jem becomes acquainted with the kindly radical poet and engraver who sometimes wears a red cap in support of the revolution taking place in France. Not much happens: John tries to seduce Maisie; Maggie reveals a violent past; a mob attacks the Blakes for their politics. Chevalier echoes (and quotes from) Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, aspects of which are reflected in her characters, especially the various ruined or near-ruined women. Eventually, the Kellaways go home to Dorset, Astley joins the war in France and Maggie reveals a heart of gold.
A story rich in background but lacking a compelling center.