|In Chevalier's fictional account, the character Griet is the model for Vermeer's painting. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
Vermeer’s muse for his famous painting is brought to life in the fictional Griet, who narrates her story in a voice at once apt and accessible. The reader is quickly transported to the Delft of the mid 17th century and plunged into a world where Protestant and Catholic are labels with real meaning.
The place of women in society has long been that of second class citizen, with even the relatively recent progress appearing mostly as lip service to equality. Here, in the Europe of 1664 to 1676, a time when the plague swept through the region and London was all but destroyed by fire, we learn at first hand what it must have been like to be a young woman from a less than wealthy background.
Tracy Chevalier has done her research, gleaned enough information and background to bring alive the times, the fears, the hopes and the dreams of the young woman who is her central character. Griet combines a natural naivety with a worldliness that makes her both courageous and vulnerable. In spite of the almost continuous thread of drudgery and usage, the injustices that visit her daily, her acceptance that this life is what she will live until the end, there is a spirit here that lifts her out of the ordinary, raises her above the mundane and portrays her as vital, intelligent and questing.
The maid’s acceptance of casual bullying and usage is hard for the modern reader to accept, yet it is written with such openness and confidence that the reality cannot be questioned. Her mixed attitude to minimal exposure and maximum concealment echoes the hypocrisy of the church in which she has been raised and which she accepts without question. No modern girl could be so accepting, in light of the many proofs regarding the lies, hypocrisy and dogmatism of the church, but the reader is persuaded that such considerations are not available for Griet. She has no opportunity to question society and its unjust traditions, merely accepting that this is the way things are.
The love story, such as it is, remains understated. Hints alone draw the picture as the self-obsessed painter, drawn sparely and shrouded in a false air of mystery by the skill of the author, finds a way to persuade the shy but willing maid to model for him. Her very willingness to perform difficult and dangerous tasks for him leads the reader to understand the feelings she never expresses. The claustrophobic settings and customs lend menace to a relationship that could lead to only a pair of outcomes. We can hope for the better of the two whilst understanding that the worst is more likely.
The novel explores themes of injustice, bullying, the casual and cruel superiority of the wealthy, familial loyalty and the pragmatism of the poor. I cannot describe this as a happy book, yet it is strangely compelling. And, although the pace rarely alters, there is a quickening of movement in the denouement. I found I was driven to finish the book in a final sitting once I’d reached a certain point in the narrative.
There is a film of this book. I doubt it does justice to the narrative, which maintains an honest and credible voice of the maid as narrator throughout. But I will make the effort to watch it, in the hope that the director illuminates the shadows and borrows the colours of the novel.
This is a book I enjoyed and one I happily recommend to all those who like their fiction steeped in history and character.