Book Review – G.E. Bentley’s The Stranger from Paradise: A Biography of William Blake
Being the authoritative scholarly source for William Blake’s biographical information, G.E. Bentley JR’s “The Stranger from Paradise: A Biography of William Blake” is a surprisingly likable read. Mixing both the in-depth research, rigorous investigation, and required cited sources of the best scholarly texts and an almost conversational narrative tone, Bentley’s Biography of Blake should manage to entice both ivory tower scholars and casual readers alike.
In this wonderful text Blake is looked at through the various phases that make up his life. From his childhood and his relationship with his siblings to his death and legacy to the world, the events in this biography are masterfully told. The romance story of Blake and Catherine weaved into the narrative could be considered a text in itself, and the vivid descriptions of Blake’s apprenticeship and life in general make the reader feel as if they were standing next to Blake some two hundred years or so years ago as he led his life as a poet, printmaker, painter, and prophet.
Blake’s relationships with his contemporaries are explained in Bentley’s wonderful narrative voice and evidenced by the text of actual correspondence that Blake and his circle exchanged, which are weaved masterfully into the narrative in a way that will remind the reader of masterful epistolary works like Richardson’s titles “Pamela” and “Clarissa” or Aphra Bahn’s “Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister” (minus the traditional nonsense parts of eighteenth century epistolary novels).
Many of Blake’s engravings and plates are faithfully reproduced in the text, allowing the reader to see what is so eloquently described in the text, and the references and appendixes allow for further reading for those who would be interested, not in reading additional information regarding Blake, as most (if not all) of it is included in this tome, but in reading worse written and more burdensome versions of Blake’s life.
In the end, Bentley’s biography is one of the best biographies based on literary figures, and were it not for the existence of Boswell’s “The Life of Samuel Johnson” it would possibly hold the place of best history of a literary figure ever written. I recall seeing the following line somewhere, I can’t remember where, talking about Boswell’s work on Johnson, but it certainly can be applied to Bentley’s work of Blake as well: when the reader finishes reading Blake’s biography they will feel like they have been in the presence of one of the greatest men in the last centuries. The truth is they have been in the presence of two.