I used to work at an art gallery. March and May usually see exhibitions of art by our local university and high school students, respectively. Across the two exhibitions, at least one would usually contain rendition of Girl with a Pearl Earring, after Vermeer. I would stare at the pencil, charcoal, or painted work and wonder what secrets it contains. To be honest, visual art can intrigue me but isn’t my favourite medium; I am and always have been more moved by words. But that portrait certainly captivates, so I’m not surprised that it has inspired a novel about a possible girl behind the pearl earring. Another teacher at my school passed this on to me as a World Book Day book. I had never read it, nor did I know about the movie, but it looked like something I would enjoy, so I gave it a try without hesitation. At the beginning of Girl with a Pearl Earring, I was content. I thought this would be a typical, easy read that would garner three stars and a good review. By the end, I was extolling this book to the people around me with a heart heavy with sympathy for Griet’s plight.
Tracy Chevalier creates a believable portrayal of a woman who could have been Vermeer’s model for this famous work. Griet is a Protestant girl whose family has fallen on hard times. She manages to get hired as a maid to Vermeer’s Catholic wife, who forms an instant dislike of Griet. Possessing a sense of intellect and curiosity that does not become someone supposed to serve, Griet attracts the eye of Vermeer—as well as one of his most frequent patrons, the womanizing Van Ruijven. Griet becomes the former’s assistant even as the latter schemes to acquire her. As a result of these events, she finds herself sitting for this portrait. And she knows that when it is finished, everything will change, and she will have to leave Vermeer’s house forever.
Griet is a satisfying protagonist. She is capable, if not particularly confident. She is quiet but has a strong and measured internal voice that makes her a satisfying narrator as well. Most importantly, she has both foes and flaws, essential ingredients for conflict, not to mention essential to preventing the onset of Mary Suedom. Griet has her share of enemies and adversaries, a diverse rogues gallery that includes the spiteful Catharina, the mischievous Cordelia, and the liscentious Van Ruijven. In addition to her quiet equanimity, Griet also possesses considerable pride and a sense of self that makes her far more formidable than a young, seventeen-year-old maid should be.
This clash between who Griet is and who she is expected to be is the ceaseless source of conflict throughout Girl with a Pearl Earring. As Maria Thins repeats several times throughout the book, “Never so much trouble with a maid before.” Griet isn’t particularly well suited, in terms of temperament, to being a maid. But it’s not really her fault that these misfortunes visit themselves upon her: Chevalier instead makes the connection between Griet’s position, her beauty, and the gender roles of seventeenth-century Europe. Vermeer, Van Ruijven, and Pieter the son are all driven to possess her, in literal and figurative senses of the word. Griet is trapped, caught in the double standard of society expecting her to be chaste and above reproach while these men each expect her to yield to them in different ways. Chevalier captures Griet’s discomfort with various techniques ranging from overt commentary on how precarious her position in the household is to more subtle reminders about her obsession with remaining modest and keeping her hair covered.
It’s not that Chevalier is saying much that is new here. Certainly there are plenty of explorations of women’s challenges in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe. Some are better than others; some follow noblewomen and others follow chambermaids. The genius here is that link with Vermeer’s painting. It’s more than a springboard or a MacGuffin; it is a central symbol around which the story can develop. Chevalier can use art and artistic terminology, the details of lighting and colour and pigment, to add a new dimension to Griet’s thought.
Griet’s story is truly a journey. She begins it as a wide-eyed and innocent sixteen-year-old who truly has no idea what is in store for her over the next two years. With each subsequent event, she changes and develops new opinions—and the reader’s impressions of Griet change as well. I think I was about 100 pages in when I realized I was really enjoying the book and anxious to keep turning pages. I noticed that, as she became more embedded in Vermeer’s operation, her vocabulary was changing. She was describing things differently in terms of colour, light, and shadow. This evidence of change and learning compelled me. I read another 80 before finally forcing myself to go to sleep so I wouldn’t be a total zombie in the morning. The book is just paced perfectly.
I’m ambivalent about the ending. On one hand, it isn’t as dark or tragic as I expected, and I’m happy with that. It makes sense, and it has a dull atmosphere of disappointment that is probably more realistic to the time period than anything truly over-the-top or dramatic. However, it is also a little predictable and trite, something that, in my opinion, the book manages to avoid otherwise. Maybe that’s exactly what it needs in the ending. I’m not sure.
Girl with a Pearl Earring promised to be good, but it surprised me and turned out to be great. It’s well-realized historical fiction with a sensitive eye towards gender roles, power relations, and the tribulations impoverished youth. Chevalier’s incorporation of Vermeer’s art allows her to explore some common themes while simultaneously creating a memorable, worthy story that escapes the realm of mediocrity to become truly special.