Catherine Blake: An underrated female figure lost in the shadows
“Happy is the man who finds a true friend, and far happier is he who finds that true friend in his wife” said Franz Schubert, an Austrian composer from the late classical era. It is undoubtedly no wonder that one’s friend has all the power to bring one down or lift one up because of the bond and emotional proximity they share; hence, when it comes to a life partner-his or her role as friend has a much higher significance than any other relation involved. They say that behind every successful man there is a woman- a woman who is the real knight in the shadows fighting and encouraging him to go on. We often talk about female figures such as Jane Austen, Margaret Cavendish, Virginia Woolf, Michelle Obama and many other women when we think about women of talent and intellect contributing to literature, and also supportive wives. However, we tend to forget Catherine Blake, perhaps one of the most underrated female figures, whose significance in William Blake’s life and career is an apt example to visualize the true merit of the quote by Franz Schubert. This essay intends to shed light on how Catherine had stayed by Blake’s side and aided him which further enhanced his talent and boosted his career to give us these invaluable art and literature that we have today.
Before we dive into her countless contributions, let us find out who Catharine was. Catherine Boucher was born in 1762 to Mary Davis and William Boucher who was a gardener. In 1781 she met Blake in Battersea and they fell in love upon a simple conversation. Blake had been
suffering from heartbreak from his previous relationship and had asked Catherine if she pitied him; to which she replied “yes” and that made Blake feel that he loved her (Bentley 6).
Catherine did not know how to read and write like most other women around her in the 18th century; and so she signed her matrimonial certificate with a simple ‘x’ (Burdett 37). The simplicity of their marriage shows how simple and considerate both of them were. It also shows how Catherine as much as Blake was not invested in materialistic values and cared for what is inside of a soul. Not much is known about her early life as it was much later that she and her significance came to people’s attention. Thus, most of the information on her has been collected in relevance to Blake’s biography.
Blake’s printing press is probably the first thing that comes to one’s mind when we think of Catherine Blake’s contribution. Printing was quite a grueling task during that time and it involved many stages as well as many people specialized in the task of each stage to print a single sheet of paper (The British library 1:59- 2:07). William Blake, being an extraordinary artisan and poet with talent, had found a much easier yet very delicate and intricate way of printing that allowed him to print both his drawings and poems on the same page at the same time (The British library 2:43- 3:09). They had set up their own printing press in a small room in their house and Catherine helped color the beautiful images Blake created, and this work required extreme caution and delicacy. This sheds light on how much Blake trusted Catherine’s abilities as an artist! It is found that Catherine had produced a few pieces of art herself, and according to curator Amy Concannon, it was Catherine who colored the cover of the book Europe: a prophecy by William Blake (Thorpe).
Today the divorce, separation and chaos in marital relationships are nothing but common. Extramarital affairs and disturbance in family life was also present in the 18th century but
almost nobody would say anything such about Blake and Catherine’s relationship. It was full of harmony and love. However, it was no easy job, and I almost feel that things would have fallen apart if it was not Catherine who Blake was blessed to have by his side. This is because most of the people around him found him to be quite eccentric and he was “ignored in his lifetime, dismissed by many who knew him as insane” (Grovier). Blake, being a visionary, was always ahead of his own time and had radically different beliefs than the common people. Thus would definitely make it hard for anyone to understand and relate to him let alone accept him. However, Catherine had whole-heartedly accepted Blake for who he was and shared his passion and ideals. This shows her utmost devotion, consideration and love towards Blake. Blake was said to have visions of supernatural creatures and that was a major inspiration for his work (The British Library 0:46- 1:18). Anyone living with a man claiming to have such visions would have been scared and plotting to leave. Catherine did none of those and she embraced his unique ideas and helped him put them on to paper. It is undeniable that without her support, for someone like Blake who treasures emotions such as love, it would have been extremely hard to keep on going in a society that only saw him as nothing but a madman. Not only this, but it is also rumored that some of his neighbors had spotted the couple going about their day at home in the nude without being concerned. Blake had very different ideas and was quite invested in the significance and importance of innocence which may have caused them to behave that way. It may seem quite bizarre but we must focus on what lies beyond that meets the eye. The thought of living like that would be absolutely crazy to most of us, and it would not be surprising if Catherine had felt the same way too; but instead of how any ordinary person would perceive this to be, she took part in it and was comfortable in doing it. This was because she believed in Blake and prioritized him as well as understanding the ideals of a visionary. This makes her understanding of literature
and social concepts much higher than an average woman and almost scholarly. Blake had taught her to read and write. People even had reported to have seen them reading out passages from different literary pieces and discussing them. This shows how Catherine was a central figure to Blake’s interpretation, discussion and growth as a poet. Moreover, Catherine herself was his inspiration for many of his works.
Women in the 18th century were not independent and their lives were dependent on their fathers until marriage and then their husbands as this was the system of the society which was patriarchal to its absolute core. Blake as a man was different; however this did not mean that Catherine’s life would not be harsh without the presence of a male figure. Being affiliated with Blake and supporting him, came with a lot of dangerous risks. Blake had always been rebellious and was against slavery and institutionalized religion (Bentley12). This meant he was against the rules of the king and was also against the church- both being extremely powerful authorities ruling the country. Despite realizing the obvious risks of Blake being charged of sedition or treason and executed which would leave to lead a life of misery; Catherine stayed by his side and continued helping him grow and work. Such selfless and compassionate nature is quite rare to see. What is so remarkable about Catherine Blake is that even after the death of her husband; she carried his legacy onward to the best of her ability.
They did not have children, but that is not the only way to keep a poet’s legacy alive for it lies
within his works. Catherine was in custody of Blake’s works after his death and she had sold numerous copies of his unsold works and was regarded as “an excellent saleswoman” (whitehead).
Catherine Blake was an individual of much talent who supported her husband without any material gain. She serves as an example of how much little things matter over materialistic
things that have drawn our attention. Despite not having been in the spotlight herself, it is undeniable that her presence and contribution in Blake’s life had let Blake reach his highest potential. She was his knight, inspiration and encouragement from the shadows which allowed room for Blake to grow and write in a loving and accepting, if not utopian, environment. So, it was Catherine and her immense contribution that is behind the reason why we are able to enjoy such invaluable and beautiful masterpieces by none other than the visionary William Blake.
Bentley, G. E. “William Blake.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 8 Aug. 2020, www.britannica.com/biography/William-Blake.
Burdett, Osbert. William Blake. Parkstone press International, 1926.
Grovier, Kelly. “William Blake: The Greatest Visionary in 200 Years.” BBC Culture, 10 Sept.
The British Library. “William Blake’s Printing Process.” YouTube, uploaded by The British Library, 6 June 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=96LUAaaPqRc.
The British Library. “William Blake’s Spiritual Visions.” YouTube, uploaded by The British Library, 6 June 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=F8hcQ_jPIZA.
Thorpe, Vanessa. “How William Blake’s Wife Brought Colour to His Works of Genius.” The Guardian, 7 Sept. 2019,
Whitehead, Angus. “‘An Excellent Saleswoman’: The Last Years of Catherine Blake.” Blake/ An Illustrated Quarterly, 2011, bq.blakearchive.org/45.3.whitehead.