No one would have guessed, least of all himself, that Thomas Kellaway, a Dorset chairmaker from a family settled in the Piddle Valley for centuries, would eventually end up living with his family in London. Everything about his life up until he met circus owner Philip Astley had been ordinary
- drinking at the local watering hole two evenings a week was the highlight of his life.
This was how he lived and how he was expected to live until, in February 1792, Astley's Traveling Equestrian Spectacular came to spend a few days in Dorchester, just two weeks after Thomas's youngest son, Tommy, falls from a pear tree. Upon returning home from a performance, he tells his wife Anne that Astley has offered him work; "we can have a better life in London," he says.
So, together with their son, Jem, and their daughter, Maisie, Anne and Thomas pile their scarce provisions into a cart and take the long journey to the City. Anne especially sees the prospect of a life in London as a way to escape from the
fresh mound of earth in the Piddletrenthide graveyard that haunts her every waking moment.
Upon finding rooms at the Hercules Estates, a series of homes owned by the stuffy Miss Pelham and situated in the heart of Lambeth, the Kellaways try to familiarize themselves with
the comings and goings of the neighborhood. The city of London, however, proves
to be a bit of a shock after Piddletrenthide. Anne in particular finds it hard to adjust, and every inch of her gives out a message that she does not want to be here or have anything to do Philip Astley.
Meanwhile, adventurous Jem and Maisie explore their new surrounds. In no time at all, Jem hooks up with Maggie Butterfield, "with her tangled hair and brown eyes fringed with long lashes," who becomes Jem's guide to the back streets and alleyways and a solace from his anxious mother and absorbed father.
Things become complicated, however, when the naive Maisie develops a crush on John, Phillip Astley's handsome and debonair son. A ladies' man "with his even features and clear calculating eyes," John is the finest equestrian rider in the circus, and his elegant and unruffled ways are a perfect foil for the
virginal young Maisie.
As Maisie becomes ever more captivated by John, Jem gets to know the colorful assortment of characters
living on Hercules Estates, most notably the mysterious writer, printer and engraver William Blake and his wife, Catherine. Forming an odd sort of acquaintance with Jem, William is fond of quoting from Paradise Lost while waxing poetic to the boy about the nature of life and love.
Jem's bourgeoning friendship with William Blake seems to form the thematic core of this story,
encapsulating the boy's concerns about living in London, his fears for Maisie and his parents, his new and surprising feelings for Maggie, and his deep sorrow at the death of his brother back in Piddletrenthide.
With the central focus on the daily life of the Kellaways, Burning Bright is drenched in elaborate details of eighteenth-century life, from Blake's home printing press to the intricacies of Anne Kellaway's buttonmaking and on to the Jem and Maisie's walks through central London.
They're simultaneously confused and exhilarated by the odors of life and death at Smithfield's, by the beautiful clothes worn by the wealthy in St James Park, and by the wretched rags of St. Giles.
It's impossible to imagine how difficult it would have been for a family like this to cope in such a chaotic environs
- the smell of coal fires and the constant smoke that fogs up the city, making Anne's eyes go red, along with the neglected shabbiness of Lambeth and the filth caused by people living close together
in their sour, mildewed clothes.
With Maisie's virginal honor placed in jeopardy, a series of events are set in motion.
The drama plays out in the form of rape, murder, venereal disease, and even a
succession of dishonorable pregnancies that shake up Jem and Maggie's world, and indeed
that of everyone else on the Hercules Estates.
Ambushed by memories, London does not completely bury Tommy for the Kellaways.
These simple countryfolk find themselves somewhat blindsided by the pressures of London, the realities of life here becoming almost too much for them to bear. Consequently, they find themselves aching to return to bucolic surrounds of Dorset.
In fact, that seems to be the only way this family can ultimately escape from the dizzying complications that have come from living in one of the world's largest cities.