Girl with a Pearl Earring

Ham and High Literary festivalGreat excitement is brewing chez Emilybooks, for next week I will be interviewing Tracy Chevalier at the Ham and High Literary Festival. I would love to see some friendly unheckling literary faces in the crowd, so do come along if you fancy it. (Might I also suggest a little browse of other festival events, while you’re at it, as there are all sorts of interesting talks, from the likes of Judith Kerr, Maggie O’Farrell, Deborah Moggach, and Dannie Abse.)

Next week, we will be talking about Tracy Chevalier’s brilliant new novel The Last Runaway, which has just come out in paperback, but I couldn’t resist the excuse to read – at long last – Girl with a Pearl Earring as well.

What a wonderful book! I expect most of you know the premise – a fictional rendering of the story behind this beautiful painting by Vermeer:

 Girl with a Pearl Earring

The novel begins with Griet chopping vegetables. We quickly learn that her father was a tiler, but has been blinded in an accident, so the family has fallen into poverty and Griet is sent to be a maid in the house of Vermeer. The artist suspects she will be well-suited to the job of cleaning his studio as she has a sensitivity to colour – shown in the way she lays out slices of vegetables in a colour wheel before putting them into the soup, and also because her father’s blindness has made her good at leaving things where they are meant to be. Ironically, this need for things to be left exactly as they were is one felt just as keenly by a blind man as by a painter, who sees so well.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy ChevalierGriet sets off to this new household, different in so many ways to her own. It is Catholic, wealthy enough to afford maids and meat, and ruled over by two mistresses: Vermeer’s wife Catharina – sour, jealous, endlessly popping out babies – and her mother Maria Thins, who one senses is really in charge, certainly of the house’s finances. There are several children, but most notable is awful Cornelia – malicious, cunning and cruel in the way that only little girls can be.

Griet quickly wins the reader’s respect. Like all the best heroines, she is put in a tough situation but quietly rises to the challenge. We see this straight away when Tanneke, the older maid, shows her the laundry:

She pointed to a great mound of clothes – they had fallen far behind with their washing. I would struggle to catch up.

Rather than despairing at the task ahead, or indeed naively dismissing it, Griet assesses the situation:

Including me there were ten of us now in the house, one a baby who would dirty more clothes than the rest. I would be laundering every day, my hands chapped and cracked from the soap and water, my face red from standing over the steam, my back aching from lifting wet cloth, my arms burned by the iron. But I was new and I was young – it was to be expected I would have the hardest tasks.

Then she quietly gets on with it:

The laundry needed to soak for a day before I could wash it. In the storage room that led down to the cellar I found two pewter waterpots and a copper kettle. I took the pots with me and walked up the long hallway to the front door.

Griet displays the same calm objectivity with the rest of her new life. She notes a problem – a difficult person or task – assesses exactly what the trouble is and then quietly goes about it as best she can. A practical and clear-headed heroine.

The one real boon of Griet’s new life is her contact with art. She is let into Vermeer’s studio to clean – a place where the children, his wife and the other maid are not allowed:

It was an orderly room, empty of the clutter of everyday life. It felt different from the rest of the house, almost as if it were in another house altogether. When the door was closed it would be difficult to hear the shouts of the children, the jangle of Catharina’s keys, the sweeping of our brooms.

This room is a special place, a quiet sanctuary. She savours her time alone cleaning in there, and slowly it becomes hers as much as it is Vermeer’s. It is an interesting take on Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’, for while the studio isn’t Griet’s own space, she asserts her presence and comes to share it with Vermeer.

Vermeer notices her artistic eye and it’s not long before he asks her to assist him, teaching her how to grind the colours and mix the paints, and explains elements of composition and colour to her. He arranges it so that she can sleep in the studio’s attic to give her more time to help him. There is a key moment when she sees what is needed in one of his paintings before he does, and rearranges it for him.

‘I had not thought I would learn something from a maid,’ he said at last.

As a counterbalance to Griet’s settling into her new life, Chevalier lets us watch the threads of her old life slowly unravel. Every Sunday she visits her family, and we see the relationships fracture. Meanwhile, Griet is pursued by the butcher’s son. While our practical heroine can see how he would provide food for her poor family and how kind he is in the way he cares for and helps her, she is repulsed by the blood under his fingernails, and – we can see, before she admits it to herself – he doesn’t equal her enigmatic, and clean-handed, master Vermeer.

While Chevalier builds everything up to a moment of taboo-breaking romance between Griet and her master, she is too intelligent an author to give in to this tension. Instead, a more subtle relationship is formed between them, erotic yet chaste, in which they come together over their work rather than physically. We know that Griet will eventually pose for him, and we sense that this could be her undoing…

While Griet’s position as a maid from a poor family is emphasised throughout the book, so is her agency and her ability to negotiate her own path. Chevalier describes the middle of the Market Square:

There the stones had been laid to form an eight-pointed star set inside a circle. Each point aimed towards a different part of Delft. I thought of it as the very centre of the town, and as the centre of my life.

We are always wondering which way Griet will go. There are new directions offered throughout the book, but there are just as many occasions when a way is closed to her. Not long after she has gone to the Catholic quarter to  Vermeer’s house, she learns that the area where her own family live has been quarantined because of the plague, and so she may not go back. She is allowed into Vermeer’s studio, and yet she is locked in there at night for fear of her stealing the mistress’s jewels. She may help Vermeer, yet we wonder how far along that path she will be allowed to go. When she is posing for Vermeer, his friend warns her to be careful:

Take care to remain yourself … The women in his paintings – he traps them in his world. You can get lost there.

Characters and circumstances conspire to trap Griet, to close off a path and to bully her into submission, either to the lusty advances of a man, or the mean actions of a woman. And yet Griet – our quiet, practical heroine – manages to cool-headedly resist and remain herself, treading her own path, albeit with just enough nearly getting lost to keep you gripped.

Daphne and Tracy Chevalier

And what did Daphne think? Well, poor Daphne is having some trouble with her left eye, and now goes about with it closed, poor thing, giving her a somewhat piratical look. She will be going to the vet to have it flushed out next week, but in the meantime I think her vision of the world is a little wonky and perhaps reading a book that makes such a contrast between a blind man and an artist, with so much thinking about art and composition and colour was rather an insensitive choice. Also, as a strict vegetarian, all the descriptions of the meat at the market were quite upsetting for her. Nevertheless, she agrees that Chevalier has a fine prose style and, as we know, Daphne, like Griet, is not afraid to go exploring, and will always find her way out of a trap!

Incidentally, Vermeer also came up in Proust (see last week’s post). Swann is writing an essay about him, although I very much doubt that Charles Swann would have come up with anything as fun, engaging and gripping a work as Tracy Chevalier.

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