Girl with a Pearl Earring

by Tracy Chevalier
ISBN: 0452284937

Post Your Opinion
A Review of: Girl With A Pearl Earring
by Gordon Phinn

That Johannes Vermeer be considered one of the finest artists this planet has produced seems to be well beyond any kind of combative debate. His contribution to the evolution of oil on canvas, though tiny by the prolific standards of some of his more long lived colleagues, is considered immutable. Indeed, it could be argued that our notions of the sublime in domestic life, are, if not entirely, then largely in part, derived from his thirty-five surviving works, whose held-breath stillness evoke transcendence from our art craving souls. While contemporaries such as Metsu, Fabritus and De Hooch command equal respect and devotion, from both critics and public, the enduring enigma of his oeuvre rarely fails to activate our human thirst for the unforgettable thrum of light on textured surface.
And in our excitement over the exquisitely rendered interiors and streetscapes, we long to uncover the intimate anatomy of the life as lived by the divine emissary from Delft. Unfortunately there is not much to discover. Archived legal documents, births, deaths christenings and the like, bills of debt and sale, and the very occasional traveller's diary entry are about all we have to go on. Phrases like "contemporary chroniclers remain mute" forever haunt even the most bodacious of enthusiasts. Even that most readably reliant compendium of fact, circumstantial evidence and educated inference, Anthony Bailey's Vermeer: A View Of Delft (Henry Holt 2001), laments that between the baptismal of October 1632 and the betrothal of April 1653, we know "absolutely nothing." And despite the chill imposed by such a damning lack, the prodigious and devoted Bailey goes on to comment, "We are glad of crumbs that may not show us the shape of the loaf, but suggest the texture and taste of the bread." Indeed, Mr. Bailey is to be praised for his measured determination, for rarely in the field of scholarship has so little material been rendered with such rigorous and restrained magnification.
Into such an informational breech the young Tracy Chevalier fearlessly steps. With the instincts of a romantic storyteller steeped in the pusillanimous propaganda of the creative writing degree mills, she tosses the odd pinch of verifiable fact into her sizable gossipy stew, and blending it with the social, cultural and artistic ephemera derived from Simon Schama's Embarrassment of Riches and John Montias's Vermeer And His Milieu, comes up with what many reviewers consider a plausible scenario for a small corner of the great artist's brief but eloquent life. Vibrant and sumptuous they say, a jewel of a novel. Hmm.
Chevalier's first published fiction traces the career of Griet, an illiterate seventeen-year-old from a working class family, whose sudden impoverishment requires her to find employment pronto. Realising her pitiful eight stuivers per day will barely save them from penury, but will leave one less mouth to feed, she dutifully trundles off to the Vermeers. You know, her now blind father reminds her, that painting we saw at the Town Hall a few years back? "And the painting had sand in it to make the brick work and the roofs look rough," she adds, "And there were long shadows in the water, and tiny people on the shore nearest us?"
Whether one can or cannot swallow such an exchange pretty well determines one's overall reaction to this narrative. Personally I don't buy it. Though she refuses to lard her sentences with the kind of gaudy swollen prose of the low brow historical novelist out for her annual culture pub crawl, she repeatedly infuses her heroine's girlish thoughts with a sophistication well beyond her years and apparent lack of education. Such a girl might be fascinated with the presence of a working artist, and thrilled with his smallest attentions, but would she "ponder each object" or "sense that there should be some disorder on the table, something to snag the eye?" Would she advise Vermeer on the specific rumple of tablecloths and placement of models' arms?
Though the research provided by Montias, Schama and others shows quite clearly that the mercantile glory years of Dutch culture lead to, amongst other things, paintings in almost every building, public and private, there is scant evidence that illiterate urban peasants cared to discuss the finer points of their construction. Let's skip all the proto-Marxist critiques of bourgeois novelists' romanticising of the permanent underclass and cut to some kind of chase. Though Chevalier scrupulously avoids the overblown stylistic guff of her chosen genre by forging her lines with the kind of piety and restraint Griet's Calvinist contemporaries would likely applaud, she slavishly subscribes story-wise.
Our poor girl, cast into ignominious servitude by her father's industrial accident, embattled with, God-save-us, Catholics from Papist's Corner, an ever swelling horde of noisy, conniving children, a snippy, churlish mistress, jealous from the word go, whose mother rules the roost with a rod of iron, and a brooding, near-silent master who gives her google eyes from the other side of the room, slaves all day, sleeps in the cellar, and generally gets used and abused by all. Ah, but what light through yonder window peeps? It's good old Vermeer, taking a shine to her efficient obedience, swinging things with the old gal so she can sleep in the quiet attic and clean his studio every morning. Next he has her grinding and mixing colours on the sly while taking the odd lesson in perception. And, like the chivalrous knight he's not, protecting her from the slavering lust of the collector Van Ruijven while almost simultaneously feeding her to the lions of his wife's jealous rage. Of course, she's the mysterious model for Head Of A Girl With A Turban, that Mona Lisa glance with the one pearl earring that history's been wondering about, who gets unceremoniously tossed into the street the minute the masterpiece is finished, but whose pluck and virtue are ultimately rewarded in the safe harbour of the Meat Hall, where her butcher boy awaits with a marriage offer, solid career and endless high protein meals for mum and dad.
Need it be said that there's not a shred of evidence for any of this? Not one shred. Yes, Johannes and Catherina Vermeer produced somewhere in the region of thirteen children, at least four of whom died in the crib. Yes, Catherina's mother Maria Thins was relatively wealthy by Delft standards, and her house was a comfortable haven for them all. Yes, Vermeer was a dealer as well as an artist, and likely had paintings of every description scattered about the house and a handful of patrons, one or two of whom might have been a bit quick on the zipper. But the plausibility of young Griet's progress through the mystery of their world and out the other side remains firmly in the hands of those who thrive on such gossip-styled speculation. To these eyes and ears it is risible, salacious, and ultimately degrading to the artist's memory.
Though the film of the same name, directed by one Peter Webber, and featuring a moody, saturnine Colin Firth as Vermeer and a maidenly Scarlet Johannsen as Griet, makes no attempt to emboss the tackiness of the novel's central conceit, it winds up redeeming its terminal cheesiness with a lighting, set design and camera work that's just short of divine. Okay, beyond compare. Scene after domestic scene is delivered like some recent miraculous discovery of the period. One quietly gasps and moans in the marvellous spine tingle of moments perfectly captured. A maid with a broom in a doorway, pigeons pecking on windowsills, a shaft of light in a corner, a leap of faith in the noble moment.
This is not the first time a very average novel has been recast as an almost uninterrupted flow of magical cinematic moments. One recalls the marvellous resuscitation performed by Richard La Gravenese and Clint Eastwood on Bridges Of Madison County. Art and commerce are famously uneasy bedfellows, yet sometimes they can be made to lie down together and come up smiling.

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us