A tale based on Vermeer’s mysterious painting, ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ takes us through the years 1664 to 1676 in the perspective of the fictional figure Griet, a 16-year old Dutch girl, and her experience in the Vermeer household in Delft, Holland. Published in 1999 by author Tracy Chevalier, this book was on the New York bestsellers list with its intricate detail and display of life as a working girl in the 17th century.
This simple story has many emotional layers and I really enjoyed it. For one, I found the fact that it was a realistic account very refreshing in comparison to some of the optimistic portrayals we get from a historic fiction; Griet is a girl working as a maid to support her family, living an unprivileged and uneasy life. Her daily routine is tiring, and Chevalier doesn’t shy away from listing the details and stages of Griet’s chores – something well written I think, as I never found reading about Griet’s tasks boring, however simple and mundane. Chevalier is able to make these descriptions colourful and picturesque in their own way. Just as Griet pays specific attention to detail when cleaning Vermeer’s art studio, Chevalier pays just as much detail in making her novel as tidy and clear as possible.
Getting to know Griet’s character, you perhaps don’t grow to love her but you do your best to understand her. She is blunt and sharp, but smart and silent, hardly ever speaking her mind unless on occasion with Maria Thins, Vermeer’s mother-in-law ‘who looked as if she would outlive everyone’, or with the painter and her master. We also witness her ‘growing up’ and contending in the relationship with the butcher’s son, Pieter, and how she deals with his interest in her whilst remaining loyal to her duties for her master. His home brings the challenges of dissimilarity in upbringing, education and social standing, a chaotic environment which juxtaposes Griet’s own as she tries to build her place there in solitary with her old life at home gone. As Maria Thins describes, Griet unintentionally causes turmoil through working there as her relationship with the artist grows.
The painting itself is a great enigma of the 17th century, with no knowledge of who the girl is and why she is being painted. Her fashion, her stare, her single pearl earring and her luminous image painted by Vermeer in a dark backdrop still causes fascination today and becomes the crux of Chevalier’s tale. Johannes Vermeer has only 35 canvasses to his name and his subjects are all based on domestic life. We know little else of him, other than that he grew up in Delft, a Dutch town famous for its blue and white earthware, and that he converted to Catholicism through his marriage with Catherine Bolnes. With eleven children they lived in the minority of a predominantly Protestant town, but even through his success in joining the Guild of Saint Luke as a master painter, he gained no income from his work and died leaving debt. The intrigue in painting so few works, though talented, makes Girl with a Pearl Earring and others more fascinating: in Chavelier’s eyes, they hold ‘so much mystery in each painting, in the women he depicts, so many stories suggested but not told.’
Tracy Chevalier explains her inspiration came from her poster of Vermeer’s painting which hung in her bedroom:
‘Within three days I had the while story worked out. It was effortless; I could see all the drama and conflict in the look on her face. Vermeer had done my work for me.’
As a reputable writer with 8 novels so far, her tale of the Girl with a Pearl Earring sold 5 million copies worldwide. The book was also adapted into the 2004 with Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth.
Overall, Girl with a Pearl Earring was a great read; I found myself referring to the painting online whilst reading, as well as Vermeer’s others. Chevalier’s language is descriptive enough to show you the colours, the luminosity and light in his world without complicating things. Her simplicity encouraged me to go see it for myself (but it is not required for you to have to go on google to understand!) I recommend this novel, and thank my friend from home for gifting me a perfect holiday read this Christmas.