Other Sorrows, Other Joys: The Marriage of Catherine Sophia Boucher and William Blake

by Janet Warner
ISBN: 031231440X

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A Review of: Other Sorrows, Other Joys: The marriage of Catherine Sophia Boucher and William Blake
by Todd Swift

Almost exactly two hundred years ago (in January 1804) William Blake was before a judge, charged with Sedition and Assault. It is curious that this trial, which would have seemed such a dramatic turn of events in his own life, no longer forms a main part of this visionary poet's familiar biographical arc. Indeed, when one does think of William Blake these days, it may be to ponder how a man could go from being under- (even un) estimated while alive, to over-lionized more than a century after his death (in the 1960s), to being canonized but ignored in the first days of the 21st century.
For make no mistake, from the time that Northrop Frye wrote of Blake in his study Fearful Symmetry (published on April 1st, 1969), he became (perhaps coincidentally) established as the anti-establishment poetic figure of the moment. That is, Blake, very much aware of the revolution underway in America as he worked, was seen to underwrite the political eschatology of Whitman, and, ad absurdum, Ginsberg, who seemed, by Frye's time, to be clearly the latest in a line of bearded prophets. Frye meant to suggest Blake was so much more than a system or a doom-crier, but the image stuck. Poor William Blake, poised on the Romantic cusp.
These days, it is John Clare, recently welcomed into the Canon, who presents the more delicious version of what the age demands of its nave, undervalued lost souls who turn out to represent "poetic genius" (Blake's concept). Clare, as we know, was mad to the point of Bedlam, and his work is not so much symbolic as virtual: it is so exactly present as to replace the thing with the image, hyper-poetry, rendered with intense, vivifying clarity (the pun he demands). When Clare writes out of the Romantic tradition, Nature is itself, and so is Man; Heaven is elsewhere, and presumably can take care of itself. If the Rose Is Sick, as Blake would have it, there's a good reason. Clare had a scientist's eye, and, alas for him, a poet's instruments. Nowadays, with his provincial accent and passion for the world, he'd likely be a popular eco-journalist, producing user-friendly documentaries for the BBC. Or perhaps not.
The point is, there is an irony of poetic tradition and reception here: as Blake's power to inspire shifts, we see the new outlines of the present aesthetic. It appears that currently, critics (and poetry juries) prefer their poets rooted in the immediate, the real, language, avoiding the stark alternative of the truly metaphysical and uncanny, the spiritually critical. Whereas much that interested Blake (art, craft, and the use of new materials in relation to history, literature and revolution) can be seen in the sort of concept art that litters the Tate Modern's factory floors, only devalued or at least secularized to the point of arguing against an angelic realm. Little current British writing is so gothically overwrought-or world-challenging.
I stand corrected, in one respect: when it comes to Children's Literature (Pullman, Tolkien) there is a fascination with innocence and experience, in the context of Heaven and Hell. But anyone who has checked out the urbane, classical and mannered niceties of the recent (for example) Faber and Faber poetry catalogue will discover a new sort of Pope Lite: a Silver Age of the well-wrought; writing without a sense of damnation, but with one eye on the prize.
This may be unfair to contemporary British Poetry, which, after all, gives us a Hughes for every Larkin (or a Bunting for every Hardy) but still seems poised on a rather dull knife edge. However, please name England's current Blake (he was of course unique, but the exercise is fruitful if you think of Blake as a kind as well as a broken mould). Hill? Prynne? Riley? Indeed. The world of truly gifted poetic amateurism is hard to locate by the light of a laser-guided satellite.
We have circled back to Blake, standing before "the judge, The Duke of Richmond" (according to the novel under review), accused of attacking a soldier loitering in the Blake family garden, and treasonously slandering the King, claiming he would prefer to side with Napoleon. In this way, at least, Blake seems a contemporary of ours, one of the many "poets against war" (Sean O'Brien or Adrian Mitchell?) who questioned Blair and sided with Chirac during 2003. So too, alas, does Janet Warner's novel seem all-too contemporary-so very much of it sexed-up, made into celebrity scandal moment.
Without wanting to pry into the bedrooms and boardrooms of Yale, where titanic (and Blakean) sexual/textual controversies now unfold, it seems an extraordinary coincidence that a new book about Blake and his wife should open with a sort of dumbed-down demonic, Bloom sans culottes sex scene. A confession: this reviewer has never welcomed the endless stream of novels "about" famous artists and writers, told from the point-of-view of their dog, their servant, their mistress, their eye doctor, and so on. It has seemed, for want of a better word, parasitical. All biography is written over the dead body of the genius in question, naturally. But to then construct fictions for the sole purpose of snaring a bee-stung starlet to play your heroine is a little smug. Not that Ms. Warner has written her book to become a film starring Scarlett Johansson. But there is a pearl earring feel to the whole bodice-ripping venture.
Back to the sexual assault at the start of the novel about Blake's wife. If this last sentence has drawn you up short, you are not alone. For, the most interesting aspects of Blake's life were his art and his writing, and how these related. In one biography I have read, Blake's marriage is described, in one line, as "uneventful". To most who have bothered to record the facts, such as they are, Catherine was a simple, lovely, caring woman, and a supportive wife, and she had some experiences of her own, with and without her husband, who is, after all, the centre of interest by reason of his outstanding position in Western literature.
This is not one of those infamous cases, which feminist scholars have rightfully drawn attention to (such as Rodin's talented mistress, a brilliant sculptor herself) where a woman was wrongfully overshadowed by a man; or where a man hindered a woman. Catherine is not in need of a room of her own to pursue spontaneous acts of genius, any more than any other ordinary Londoner in the 1700s was. Judging by the standards of London now, the need is less, not greater: for most people are not poets, or inspired to become poets. I wish they were. Then there might be a larger market for verse.
Now, back to the attempted rape-imagined one supposes by the novelist-of Catherine, at the hands of a dastardly parson (The Reverend Adam). This book is written in an epistolary fashion, and nods to Pamela (one character says "a Novel can have a powerful affect on Morality"). It is acceptable to create a dramatic back-story for one's heroine. But a melodramatic one is a penny-too-dreadful. And this story constantly swerves from the wooden to a sort of music hall pantomime gaiety, which absurdly misses the heart, surely, of the matter: what was it like for a good, vaguely creative person to be married and share a long life with a tormented seer of remarkable abilities?
Discussions between Catherine and William, relating to poetry, and art, and even theories relating to sexual freedom in marriage, have all the impact of cut-and-paste quotes from a doctoral thesis: the content is there, but is presented without flavour or eloquence. When William dedicates a poem to Catherine, she replies: "That's beautiful what does it mean?" Blake then explains he believes "love is deep enough to include others." Catherine thinks to herself: "I was puzzled." This is not a rich enough recreation of an interior world to captivate.
The exterior world is rendered without the depth we associate with CGI techniques. When Catherine first arrives in London (which was the world's most extraordinary cosmopolis) she dispenses with all description of the bustling streets in about a page. She manages to say that the little boys who clean the chimneys (which so concerned William) are "black as soot." They would be, wouldn't they? One usually expects an original "yoking together" to occur when a simile or metaphor appears; but then, Catherine is no poet.
In the chapters which relate the denouement of the Blake Trial (gripping enough one would have imagined-just think of Dr. Kelly and what can happen to marriage and life under public scrutiny) we have Catherine slipping away to meet "Paul-Marc", a strikingly handsome mysterious figure who vies for her affections and speaks like this: "No, I will not! Jamais!" I am glad a French word was used, or I would not have been able to tell he wasn't British.
Janet Warner is a Blake scholar, and has written well on the subject in the past. She has brought much knowledge and evident interest to her present novel. Her sympathy for the Blakes is sincere and credible. Nonetheless, the case against this novel is strong. Rather than documenting a female perspective of a fascinating time separate from a husband or a man, or in league with one, Warner gives us a woman torn between two men (at least). This may pay homage to the dilemmas of heroines from the time of Pamela, but does an injustice to both of the key Blakes, Catherine, and William. Blake, for his part, was found not guilty in 1804.

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