Tracy Chevalier likes to write historical fiction because it helps to connect her life with the past, to see her life “in a deeper perspective”. The Dutch 17th century painter Jan Vermeer is revered for his paintings of domestic life, among them the “Girl with the Pearl Earring”. Chevalier took it upon herself to weave a tale behind the painting of this masterpiece, a story of a domestic intrigue with a twist.
The identity of the young girl in the painting is unknown, so the writer is free to imagine her as a servant, but one who was not born to the serving class – in this case, Griet, the daughter of a glazier who suffered an accident and became blind. With the father unemployed, the daughter has to find work. It is plausible that an artisan’s daughter would be used to household work, and Chevalier makes Vermeer the head of the glazier’s guild - a suitable employer in the eyes of Griet’s family.
Griet is not happy to leave her mother and father and sleep in a strange household, and be bossed about by Vermeer’s wife, as well as the cook and Vermeer’s children, who can be unruly and demanding. But she manages, and has enough spirit from being a well-loved child in our own home to discipline Vermeer’s children and manage her other new relations with tact and with fortitude. We, the readers, are secretly rooting for Griet to handle all obstacles well, but in ways befitting her time and place.
And Chevalier largely succeeds in this. We can see how the butcher’s son pursues his suit for Griet’s hand, encouraged by her parents in light of his father’s secure business. Griet herself has little to say in this choice, as would a girl of that century. But as she cleans her master’s studio, she becomes aware of his life and his habits, and his art. There is a reverence there, in Griet’s perception of him - more than just from his being the head of the household. Chevalier skillfully builds on Griet’s and Vermeer’s awareness of each other, giving Griet an artist’s capability of seeing color and symmetry, gained through her artisan’s heritage. Their relationship grows slowly, through recognition and respect. It makes sense to us that out of Vermeer’s large household, only he and his mother-in-law see Griet as a person in her own right.
But the novel as a whole is understated, with the drama too muted for my taste. I have heard that the movie, directed by Peter Webber, has more emotional impact. Perhaps the choreographing of the countless interactions in the household, skillfully done, manages to convey the charged and evocative atmosphere more forcefully than in Chevalier’s writing. I’ll have to view it. Luckily, we have the movie here at the library also.