Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Two Novels about Vermeer: the Artist's Inspiration and the Art's Influence

Girl with a Pearl Earring, Deluxe EditionWhen my book club selected Girl with a Pearl Earring for our October meeting, I mistakenly thought it was another book about Vermeer that I had read about at Small World Reads Blog called Girl in Hyacinth Blue. If I had gone back and read her review, I would have seen that she recommended reading Girl with a Pearl Earring first, but I found the premise of Girl in Hyacinth Blue more appealing and read it first. I'm actually glad I did, because I liked Susan Vreeland's vignettes that traced a painting's history from the present to the time it was created much more than the emotionally charged, teen infatuation that drives the story of Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Let me first say that I think that many of Vermeer's paintings are extraordinary, and it is fascinating to speculate about the circumstances that inspired the artist, particularly when the "Girl with a Pearl Earring" is so strikingly different than his other works. However, I don't appreciate the trend that I have observed in several recent historical fiction works that make sexuality the framework through which we approach historical subjects. The historical subject matter is intriguing enough, and I would have preferred that poetic license be taken in a different manner. 

So, for a brief synopsis, Girl with a Pearl Earring imagines that the subject of the painting by the same name was a young maid in Vermeer's household. Griet, the daughter of a Delft tile painter, has an artistic bent herself, or at least an eye for color and form. When Vermeer notices her arranging of vegetables by color, Griet quickly assumes that an intellectual or artistic meeting of minds must indicate a romantic attachment. Henceforth, all her thoughts about and interactions with Vermeer, as she has the privileged position of cleaning his studio and mixing his paints, are seen through the eyes of her young infatuation. And while she imagines that Vermeer hides a mutual attraction, Griet finds that her beauty attracts the attention of a butcher's son as well as Vermeer's patron, the rich and demanding van Ruijven, who wants to "own" her and is only appeased by Vermeer's agreeing to paint her.

To her credit, Chevalier seems to have thoroughly researched 17th century Dutch life and offers vivid descriptions of the various levels of society and their interactions and expectations of one another. I found this aspect of the novel fascinating as we follow Griet from her humble home and struggling parents to Vermeer's busy home with many children, a contentious wife, and domineering mother-in-law, to the aisles of the markets and the ordinary lives of laborers and merchants. It may be that a simple change in perspective or narrator would have made all the difference for me, for just a little bit of distance from Griet's own thoughts and self-awareness of her allure might have given the perspective necessary to raise it from teen angst to great historical fiction. I'm sorry if my review seems uncharitable, but there was just so much that was gratuitous, even by implication, in the telling of this story - a story which had remarkable potential, in my opinion - that I was very disappointed.

Girl in Hyacinth BlueGirl in Hyacinth Blue is not without it's own gratuitous scenes, but the underlying tone in which they are presented at least seems consistent with the cultural expectations of the historical time period - those who disregard marriage vows, either before or after marriage, face consequences of one sort or another. Unlike Girl with a Pearl Earring, which focuses on a few characters, this story revolves around an imagined lost work of Vermeer's, one without signature or papers but which bears the artist's characteristics so strikingly that it must be a Vermeer. The painting's most recent journey brought it to America via the looting of Jewish homes in the Netherlands during World War II, and from that infamous beginning Susan Vreeland gives a collection of short stories that trace the painting's history over 300 years through the hands of Jews, Dutch merchants, French diplomats, common farmers, slave traders, and bakers to Vermeer himself.

The art itself is both the protagonist and antagonist of these tales, for the painting has its own significance and meaning for each owner and observer; it is the main "character" of the book, but also the catalyst that works upon the characters in each of the stories. The fictional accounts of Vermeer and his family, which finally reveal the authenticity of the painting, seem much more in keeping with what little is known of his personal life, for he is presented as a preoccupied artist who loves his wife and children and struggles to provide for their physical needs while furthering his artistic vision. In short, Girl in Hyacinth Blue depicts the enduring influence of fine art, a far more satisfying message than one girl's sensual influence on the men around her.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

The Warden (Oxford World's Classics)I'm sorry to say that I only made it through one-third of David Copperfield last month before I gave up and moved on to greener pastures. But in defense of my good intentions to read classics (in spite of failing with David Copperfield this time around), my next book was The Warden, the first in the six Barsetshire Novels by Anthony Trollope, a contemporary of Dickens. The book club in Michigan where we used to live had chosen Barchester Towers for their October selection, and I just couldn't bear to start in the middle of the series.

I enjoyed The Warden much more than David Copperfield, not only because it was shorter, but because the characters were quite clearly defined, a moral and relational problem was quickly stated and developed, and I felt like the story was actually going somewhere. (I'm sorry to say that David Copperfield's lack of ambition left me feeling rather apathetic about his prospects and problems, such as they were.) Like Dickens often did, Trollope deals with a contemporary issue - that of the abuse of clergy who were handsomely rewarded for administrating works of charity while the recipients of that charity were pitifully cared for. Mr. Harding, or the Warden of Barchester, had rather innocently been given such a position with a long-fixed and adequate income when his daughter married the bishop's son, the archdeacon, and he had since taken care of the elderly men at Hiram's Hospital (a retirement home of sorts) with kindness and generosity. No one who knew Mr. Harding would have suggested that he abused his position, for he freely gave the twelve men in his charge extra funds from his own resources and kept them company with his musical talents, caring for their souls as well as their bodies. Nevertheless, as a matter of principle, a young doctor believed that the system was unjust and began a lawsuit against the Warden, in spite of his own friendship with Mr. Harding. To complicate matters further, this zealous doctor was in love with Mr. Harding's younger daughter Eleanor, though their love was not yet proclaimed by an engagement.

Although the church's abuse of its resources was one of national concern, Trollope deals with it on a very personal level, contrasting Mr. Harding's desire to be just and right in spite of personal loss with the more obstinate position of the archdeacon, his son-in-law, who insisted that the church was always right in its appropriation and use of funds and easily dismissed all criticism to the contrary while relying on his well-paid lawyers to settle the matter in his favor. I immediately felt sympathy for Mr. Harding, who had lived his life with the purest of motives, only to find those motives questioned and his character maligned not only in his own village and by the very men he served but throughout the nation by means of the press. The character of the young doctor, John Bold, is likewise admirable in his quest for justice, even if he does seem somewhat calloused and unfeeling at times.

Mr. Harding's concern for the honor of his name, of maintaining a good character in the eyes of the world, eventually leads him to resign his place as warden and return to a much lower position of service in the church. His integrity, however, does not make all things right with the world. If Mr. Harding is himself content to be poor, his resignation results in less care and support for the twelve poor men of the Hospital. This could also be construed as the fault of the church, but Trollope seems more concerned for the effects on the individuals involved rather than the overarching principles involved. I appreciate the honesty with which he presents the complex issues of determining what is right for an individual, a family, a community. Clearly, Mr. Harding acted rightly according to his own conscience, but it could also be argued that he was too much influenced by public opinion of himself to act justly for the good of those who were under his care. Similarly, Eleanor and John Bold eventually act upon their emotions to the neglect of the principles to which they thought they were so committed. Trollope leads us to believe that these actions were inevitable for these characters, and for good or ill, life goes on for the inhabitants of Barsetshire, rich and poor alike.

I look forward to continuing the story of these earnest lives in the second installment Barchester Towers.