Girl With a Pearl Earring, lies at the heart of Tracy Chevalier’s novel, an historical novel that doesn’t read like an historical novel.
The novel has a strong plot and engaging first-person narrative voice. It centres on Vermeer’s prosperous Delft household during the 1660s but also the poorer household of the narrator’s family. Griet, the quietly perceptive heroine, is hired as a servant and turmoil follows. Vermeer next employs her as his assistant -and ultimately has Griet sit for him as a model. He realises she has a painterly eye and an instinctive affinity emerges between the maid and the master. One character refers to her as “wide-eyed,” suggesting both her innocence and her keen vision.
She understands Vermeer’s work better than anyone else in his family. She is able to speak to him more and more as an equal and give him advice:
“The colours fight when they are side by side, sir.”
“The light might change the painting if I clean them (the windows).”
“There needs to be some disorder in the scenery to contrast with the tranquillity.” Finally Vermeer says: “I had not thought I would learn something from a maid.”
Chevalier describes the complex tensions of the household ruled over by the painter’s jealous, immature and eternally pregnant wife and his dominating mother-in-law. Griet, daughter of a poor artisan, has to negotiate an unfamiliar world and avoid causing offence or arousing jealousy amongst the new household’s family members and servants, a household filled with hidden conflicts where she is merely a maid. She also has to deal with her own family’s sense of loss and its tragedies, a romance with a young butcher boy at the market, the lecherous advances of one of Vermeer’s clients and a subtle, unspoken relationship with the painter himself. She is drawn into and trapped in a world of secrets and silences. Griet herself learns that she has to remain silent about many things to survive.
Artists have noted that Vermeer’s paintings capture a still moment seized from a very specific time and place, creating a mood of quiet and calmness, a sense of silence around the characters. Chevalier’s writing reflects this. Her sentences are economical; the characters are reserved, their speech is simple and laconic. Often, profound emotions are conveyed through, or concealed behind, simple or formal phrases. Students can give examples of such understatement or of things left unstated altogether.
The story, told in straightforward linear style, is divided into 4 parts, each part representing a year. Griet, sixteen years old when the story begins, is the narrator and tells her story in simple, understated prose. Her elegant sentences are short, reflecting her status as the uneducated daughter of an artisan. So, while the novel is very subtle, composed of a series of small domestic dramas, it is very accessible. And as in many traditional cultures, she narrates with wonderfully evocative, vivid and simple similes and metaphors: eg. “I could hear rich carpets in their voices, books and pearls and fur.” and “My mother’s voice- a cooking pot, a flagon.” Thus the class differences between Griet’s family and that of her new masters are summed up.
This is a good example of how the writing, while very closely focused on Griet’s experiences, evokes a whole world- of a Dutch 17th. Century city, the artistic and scientific circles, the conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, the class structure, the guilds, the social and domestic hierarchies, the patriarchal structure of the period. The novel is like a self-contained Vermeer miniature containing ‘the world in a grain of sand.’
The novel begins in the kitchen at Griet’s home when the Vermeers arrive to hire her. It moves only between this and two other locations: the Vermeer household and the market-place. We are plunged immediately into her world. We might expect this to be remote. But it seems familiar and very comprehensible – partly because of Griet’s direct, intimate voice- even while the differences with society today are profound. The unfamiliar seems very familiar. Chevalier conveys a sense of the whole society through Griet’s direct experiences. Students will need very little background history explicated by the teacher as it emerges so clearly from the narrative itself. They will connect with this world. The period detail is woven seamlessly into the narrative: “I kept the cap stiff by boiling it with potato peelings.” And, like a Vermeer painting, the novel is filled with close-up, sensuous detail: but domestic, simple, concrete and telling. It is not at all precious in style!
The novel is partly a rites of passage story, the risks and the skills needed to navigate the conflicting demands, loyalties, responsibilities and pressures on entering adult society. Griet journeys out into the wider world and leaves her little family circle and her old certainties behind. Gaining independence, she experiences a sense of loss and separation: “I was beginning to forget where my mother kept things.” and her mother rebukes her with: “Working for them has turned your head.” And, as with many teenagers, her parents fear losing her: “It’s made you forget who you are and where you come from.” She says: “I have two families now and they must not mix.” She is disturbed by the art she sees at the Vermeers’ and begins to question her old fixed beliefs, the Protestant dogmas acquired from her parents. The concept of apprenticeship is central.
In her new home, she is also an outsider who has to find her way. But this is what allows her to be an objective narrator: “I felt alone there, perched high (in an attic) above the noisy household, able to see it from a distance. Rather like him (Vermeer).” There are several analogies made between her narrative and Vermeer’s painting.
The novel also explores in a very immediate way that students will be able to relate to, power and hierarchies:
· class privilege and poverty and exploitation
· family hierarchies politics
· gender relationships and patriarchy: even the gentle butcher’s boy, Pieter, becomes aggressive and exploitative. Griet has to deal with the conflicting demands of three men. As a female and as a servant, she is vulnerable and is finally trapped by circumstances at the novel’s climax, facing a limited range of options, none fully satisfactory. Yet she does choose and retain some control over her destiny, maintaining her integrity. She is a heroine!
It also raises interesting questions about art and patriarchy: Vermeer is a Master both of painting and of all the women in his family. His female models must be totally passive before his gaze as Subject. (Yet his mother-in-law seems to be the power behind his throne!) And while no one in the novel ever enunciates the possibility (we understand how no one then could imagine it!), the novel raises the question of why Griet could not become an artist herself.