Alana Mohamed | Longreads | April 2019 | 10 minutes (2,756 words)
Tracy Chevalier’s 1999 novel, Girl With a Pearl Earring, was a surprise best-seller. “Who was going to read a book about a Dutch painter?” Chevalier remembers wondering. But her fictional, highly compelling heroine, Griet, made for a popular window into Vermeer’s world. As the maid sent to work for Vermeer’s family in 17th century Delft, Griet elucidates many of the divisions of the time — between rich and poor, man and woman, and Catholic and Protestant. Chevalier said she was compelled to write the novel after wondering “what Vermeer did to her [the model] to make her look like that … I saw it as a portrait of a relationship rather than a portrait of a girl.” Readers praised Chevalier’s research, which took her to Amsterdam and the Hague while pregnant. “Chevalier’s writing skill and her knowledge of seventeenth-century Delft are such that she creates a world reminiscent of a Vermeer interior,” a brief New Yorker review reads. The New York Times and Christian Science Monitor were both similarly impressed with Chevalier’s world-building.
Some readers were, however, resistant to the idea that Griet, who in the novel possesses a keen artistic eye, would become an integral part of Vermeer’s work. In its review, Publisher’s Weekly claimed these details “demands one stretch of the reader’s imagination,” and “threaten to rob the novel of its credibility.” In 2017, Wolf Hall author Hilary Mantel rankled feathers in the historical literature community when she criticized the proclivity of modern writers to empower their historical subjects in such a way. She asked, “If we write about the victims of history, are we reinforcing their status by detailing it? Or shall we rework history so victims are the winners?” The question is reductive and misleads, but does point to the impossibility of writing about women forgotten by history as just themselves. Like Griet, they become conduits by which we dissect their cultures.
Today, uncovering women’s lives has become a mainstream project. The Paris Review has started a “Feminize Your Canon” series dedicated to underappreciated women writers. The New York Times’ “Overlooked” series is a retrograde edit of its obituary section, long dominated by white men. Both projects seek to increase the visibility of women who have long been rendered invisible by historical ambivalence. However, these are women who accomplished the extraordinary, women who may have been waylaid from greatness. As the Telegraph also notes, for Chevalier, “Research failed to make good the gaps Chevalier’s imagination was already painting in like a picture restorer.” Read more…