In Clara and Mr. Tiffany, Susan Vreeland’s careful, informative, andintermittently grinding fifth novel, the creative force behind the iconicTiffany lamp steps forward into sepia-tinted light.
ThoughLouis Comfort Tiffany took credit for the stunning stained glass windows, mosaics,and decorative objects that his Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company producedin turn-of-the-century New York, many of his signature pieces were designed andproduced by a group of skilled female artisans known as the Tiffany Girls.Their leader was Clara Driscoll, a forward-thinking and artistically ambitiouswoman who worked at the studio for more than two decades.
“You have to love itenough to forgo and forget all other loves,” Clara tells her young charges(Louis Tiffany forbade his female employees to marry). It’s advice that thewidowed Clara is mostly able to follow: though she’s briefly engaged to areforming type she calls Edwin the Educator, her true love is her work—andTiffany himself, a diminutive aesthete whose single-minded pursuit of Beautyverges on the self-destructive. Clara feels a “bottomless craving for hisattention,” but acknowledges that they are “artistic lovers,passionate without a touch of the flesh.”
Vreeland’s previous novelshave had painters at their hearts, from French Impressionist Pierre-AugusteRenoir (Luncheon of the Boating Party) to Canadian Expressionist Emily Carr (The Forest Lover). But turning the focus away from Art and towardCraft proves somewhat problematic. For one thing, the Tiffany lamp, lurid reproductionsof which are hawked regularly on QVC, has lost some of its original fascinationand wonder. And for another, the manufacture of stained glass objets involves complicated methods ofproduction that necessitate awkwardly expository dialogue. “Wilhelmina,”Clara says, “since you’re tall, you’ll paste the other copy of the cartoonto the back side of this big sheet of clear glass in a frame, which we call aneasel…. Cornelia, you will put a dot of this wax on the back of each of thenumbered sections, which we call pattern pieces, and Wilhelmina, you attachthem to the clear glass in their exact positions that you painted.” Etcetera.
WhileVreeland provides a wealth of details about Clara’s work—up to and includingher method of bookkeeping—she dispenses with Clara’s entire history in a singleparagraph of clipped sentences. “Girl feels responsible for father’sdeath,” Clara tells a friend. “Uses family money to go to artschool…. Gentleman proposes marriage to elder daughter. Out of guilt for lossof father’s income, elder daughter gives up job in the arts to marry him.”
Although she remainsrather opaque to the reader, Clara proves highly appealing to her fellowcharacters, many of whom are also based on real people. She forms a tightfriendship with George Waldo, a puckish painter, and his lover, Henry McBride, The New York Sun‘s long-time art critic.And a slow-simmering romance with another resident at her Irving Place boardinghouse, actor Edward Booth (in the novel, he is Bernard), gives the novel itsultimate conflict: which is more important, Art or Love?
It’s a potentially juicydilemma, and it’s posed in a fascinating time period, when Gilded Age excessesbrushed up against Progressive Era idealism, when labor unions first exertedtheir bargaining power and middle-class women claimed the right to meaningfulwork alongside their male counterparts. But Vreeland mutes the dramaticpossibilities of her characters and their era. Her New York often feels like aBroadway set (Bowery Street is “lined with tenements, flophouses, tawdrysaloons, and smothering ash barrels…. For want of a clothespin, some woman’swashing that been draped over a line between two buildings blew off into therunning gutter”), and her steadfast heroine notes, without a trace ofirony, that her stained glass lamps “carried thetouch of the Tiffany Girls into homes that they could never enter in person.”
Throughout, Vreeland’scommitment to conveying Information—about, for example, glass-blowing, theChicago World’s Fair, Ellis Island, and Cornelius Vanderbilt’s bedroom—seems totrump her novelistic instincts. Neither biography nor fantasy, Clara and Mr. Tiffany is too often afrustrating mix of both.