There are some books that are nearly guaranteed to be winners for me. Usually, a well-written historical fiction novel does well, and when it involves art and a bit of history, well, I'm going to giving it more than a glance. One author that has managed very well in bringing the lives of artists to the modern reader is Susan Vreeland, and it looked like her latest novel, Clara and Mr. Tiffany, was going to another splendid excursion into the past.
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When the novel opens, Clara Driscoll is returning to work at the firm of Louis Comfort Tiffany. Several years before she had been one of his best glass workers, cutting, sorting and selecting coloured glasses for his famous and very detailed stained glass windows. But unfortunately for her, Mr. Tiffany has a policy of not allowing married women to stay on with the company. So Clara had to go, and now she has been widowed after a painfully brief marriage.
And in many ways, Clara is looking forward to returning to work. She feels great pride in her ability to design and perform such meticulous work. Too, there is the camaraderie of the other women who work in the Women's Department, doing the much finer work that the Men's Department cannot handle. What surprises Clara is that not only has she gotten her job back, but she is now the head of the Department, overseeing the other women as well as crafting new designs.
Through Clara's eyes we see New York City in the 1890's, a time of the robber barons who made vast fortunes and the miseries of the poor and unskilled as well. There are the various men who come and go in Clara's life as well, the bohemians that she takes up with the boarding house where she lives -- the landlady, Merry, is quite a character in her own right -- along with the other tenants, all of whom have a mark to make on Clara's life. Some view Clara with distrust, feeling that a woman should not try to work in a man's world, while others encourage her. Several of these men will make a strong impression on her, from the taciturn Bernard Booth, an Englishman, to George, an artist who has a brother Edwin who yearns to make life better for the poor in New York City.
But in the center of Clara's life is Louis Tiffany, short, bombastic, affected and tyrannical. He is also painfully extravagant, spending frightful amounts of money in the pursuit of art, and nothing is ever too much. We see him in the frenzy of getting ready for the Columbia Exhibition in Chicago, relentlessly driving on Clara and her girls to complete projects and the most intriguing of his creations, the Tiffany lamps that have come to be an icon of the early twentieth century.
Very few people will know that it was Clara who helped to design and develop these lamps, as Mr. Tiffany did not publicly acknowledge the people who did most of his design and labour for him. It was a bane for many talented artists and craftspeople in the past, and still is today -- ask any graphic designer or artist about how they feel about 'work for hire.' Too, this novel explores deeply into the struggle for women to be accepted as equal workers in the marketplace, deserving the same wages and benefits of their male counterparts.
But most of all, it's about art. Creating art, trying to keep the inspiration going, and the momentum. Here, we get to see just how stained glass is created, and how Tiffany managed his amazing creations of iridescence and luminosity. While some readers might find these passages very boring, I was fascinated by them, always curious to see how something is created and brought to life. Vreeland's narrative is full of lush, colourful prose, filled with images of colour along with emotion and strong ties to nature and life around us.
There's also plenty of heartbreak to balance it all as well. While at times the interjection of the daily life and culture of the 1890's got a bit thick in places, I still enjoyed reading it, and while it did slow the book down in spots, it never did overwhelm the plot. The story here is one that I am certain that many women shared, and we're lucky that Clara Driscoll's story has managed to survive, as well as the lovely lamps that she created. Today, those lamps fetch amazing prices, and have become collector's pieces in private collections and museums.
Along with the main story, there are an afterword and acknowledgment that gives some suggestions for further research and also gives some of 'what happened after' of some of the characters.
All in all, I really did like this one, and it's a book that is going onto my keeper shelves. Four and a half stars, rounded up to five. Very much recommended.
Other books by Susan Vreeland:
Girl in Hyacinth Blue
The Passion of Artemisia
The Forest Lover
The Luncheon of the Boating Party
Life Studies: Stories
Many thanks to the Books CL Dramastef, who so kindly added this to the database for me and very quickly as well!
Clara and Mr. Tiffany: A Novel
2011; Random House Publishing