The New York Times bestselling novel by the author of A Single Thread and At the Edge of the Orchard
Translated into thirty-nine languages and made into an Oscar-nominated film, starring Scarlett Johanson and Colin Firth
Tracy Chevalier transports readers to a bygone time and place in this richly-imagined portrait of the young woman who inspired one of Vermeer's most celebrated paintings.
History and fiction merge seamlessly in this luminous novel about artistic vision and sensual awakening. Girl with a Pearl Earring tells the story of sixteen-year-old Griet, whose life is transformed by her brief encounter with genius . . . even as she herself is immortalized in canvas and oil.
About the Author
Tracy Chevalier is the New York Times bestselling author of seven previous novels, including Girl with a Pearl Earring, which has been translated into thirty-nine languages and made into an Oscar-nominated film. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., she lives in London with her husband and son.
Date of Birth:October 19, 1962
Place of Birth:Washington, D.C.
Education:B.A. in English, Oberlin College, 1984; M.A. in creative writing, University of East Anglia, 1994
Read an Excerpt
My mother did not tell me they were coming. Afterwards she said she did not want me to appear nervous. I was surprised, for I thought she knew me well. Strangers would think I was calm. I did not cry as a baby. Only my mother would note the tightness along my jaw, the widening of my already wide eyes.
I was chopping vegetables in the kitchen when I heard voices outside our front door—a woman’s, bright as polished brass, and a man’s, low and dark like the wood of the table I was working on. They were the kind of voices we heard rarely in our house. I could hear rich carpets in their voices, books and pearls and fur.
I was glad that earlier I had scrubbed the front steps so hard.
My mother’s voice—a cooking pot, a flagon—approached from the front room. They were coming to the kitchen. I pushed the leeks I had been chopping into place, then set the knife on the table, wiped my hands on my apron and pressed my lips together to smooth them.
My mother appeared in the doorway, her eyes two warnings. Behind her the woman had to duck her head because she was so tall, taller than the man following her.
All of our family, even my father and brother, were small.
The woman looked as if she had been blown about by the wind, although it was a calm day. Her cap was askew so that tiny blond curls escaped and hung about her forehead like bees which she swatted at impatiently several times. Her collar needed straightening and was not as crisp as it could be. She pushed her gray mantle back from her shoulders, and I saw then that under her dark blue dress a baby was growing. It would arrive by the year’s end, or before.
The woman’s face was like an oval serving plate, flashing at times, dull at others. Her eyes were two light brown buttons, a color I had rarely seen coupled with blond hair. She made a show of watching me hard, but could not fix her attention on me, her eyes darting about the room.
“This is the girl, then,” she said abruptly.
“This is my daughter, Griet,” my mother replied. I nodded respectfully to the man and woman.
“Well. She’s not very big. Is she strong enough?” As the woman turned to look at the man, a fold of her mantle caught the handle of the knife I had been using, knocking it off the table so that it spun across the floor.
The woman cried out.
“Catharina,” the man said calmly. He spoke her name as if he held cinnamon in his mouth. The woman stopped, making an effort to quiet herself.
I stepped over and picked up the knife, polishing the blade on my apron before placing it back on the table. The knife had brushed against the vegetables. I set a piece of carrot back in its place.
The man was watching me, his eyes grey like the sea. He had a long, angular face, and his expression was steady, in contrast to his wife’s, which flickered like a candle. He had no beard or moustache, and I was glad, for it gave him a clean appearance. He wore a black cloak over his shoulders, a white shirt, and a fine lace collar. His hat pressed into hair the red of brick washed by rain.
“What have you been doing here, Griet?” he asked.
I was surprised by the question but knew enough to hide it. “Chopping vegetables, sir. For the soup.”
I always laid vegetables out in a circle, each with its own section like a slice of pie. There were five slices: red cabbage, onions, leeks, carrots, and turnips. I had used a knife edge to shape each slice, and placed a carrot disc in the center.
The man tapped his finger on the table. “Are they laid out in the order in which they will go into the soup?” he suggested, studying the circle.
“No, sir.” I hesitated. I could not say why I had laid out the vegetables as I did. I simply set them as I felt they should be, but I was too frightened to say so to a gentleman.
“I see you have separated the whites,” he said, indicating the turnips and onions. “And then the orange and the purple, they do not sit together. Why is that?” He picked up a shred of cabbage and a piece of carrot and shook them like dice in his hand.
I looked at my mother, who nodded slightly.
“The colors fight when they are side by side, sir.”
He arched his eyebrows, as if he had not expected such a response. “And do you spend much time setting out the vegetables before you make the soup?”
“Oh no, sir,” I replied, confused. I did not want him to think I was idle.
From the corner of my eye I saw a movement. My sister, Agnes, was peering round the doorpost and had shaken her head at my response. I did not often lie. I looked down.
The man turned his head slightly and Agnes disappeared. He dropped the pieces of carrot and cabbage into their slices. The cabbage shred fell partly into the onions. I wanted to reach over and tease it into place. I did not, but he knew that I wanted to. He was testing me.
“That’s enough prattle,” the woman declared. Though she was annoyed with his attention to me, it was me she frowned at. “Tomorrow, then?” She looked at the man before sweeping out of the room, my mother behind her. The man glanced once more at what was to be the soup, then nodded at me and followed the women.
When my mother returned I was sitting by the vegetable wheel. I waited for her to speak. She was hunching her shoulders as if against a winter chill, though it was summer and the kitchen was hot.
“You are to start tomorrow as their maid. If you do well, you will be paid eight stuivers a day. You will live with them.”
I pressed my lips together.
“Don’t look at me like that, Griet,” my mother said. “We have to, now your father has lost his trade.”
“Where do they live?”
“On the Oude Langendijck, where it intersects with the Molenpoort.”
“Papists’ corner? They’re Catholic?”
“You can come home Sundays. They have agreed to that.” My mother cupped her hands around the turnips, scooped them up along with some of the cabbage and onions and dropped them into the pot of water waiting on the fire. The pie slices I had made so carefully were ruined.
I climbed the stairs to see my father. He was sitting at the front of the attic by the window, where the light touched his face. It was the closest he came now to seeing.
Father had been a tile painter, his fingers still stained blue from painting cupids, maids, soldiers, ships, children, fish, flowers, animals onto white tiles, glazing them, firing them, selling them. One day the kiln exploded, taking his eyes and his trade. He was the lucky one—two other men died.
I sat next to him and held his hand.
“I heard,” he said before I could speak. “I heard everything.” His hearing had taken the strength from his missing eyes.
I could not think of anything to say that would not sound reproachful.
“I’m sorry, Griet. I would like to have done better for you.” The place where his eyes had been, where the doctor had sewn shut the skin, looked sorrowful. “But he is a good gentleman, and fair. He will treat you well.” He said nothing about the woman.
“How can you be sure of this, Father? Do you know him?”
“Don’t you know who he is?”
“Do you remember the painting we saw in the Town Hall a few years ago, which van Ruijven was displaying after he bought it? It was a view of Delft, from the Rotterdam and Schiedam Gates. With the sky that took up so much of the painting, and the sunlight on some of the buildings.”
“And the paint had sand in it to make the brickwork and the roofs look rough,” I added. “And there were long shadows in the water, and tiny people on the shore nearest us.”
“That’s the one.” Father’s sockets widened as if he still had eyes and was looking at the painting again.
I remembered it well, remembered thinking that I had stood at the very spot many times and never seen Delft the way the painter had.
“That man was van Ruijven?”
“The patron?” Father chuckled. “No, no, child, not him. That was the painter, Vermeer. That was Johannes Vermeer and his wife. You’re to clean his studio.”
To the few things I was taking with me my mother added another cap, collar and apron so that each day I could wash one and wear the other, and would always look clean. She also gave me an ornamental tortoiseshell comb, shaped like a shell, that had been my grandmother’s and was too fine for a maid to wear, and a prayer book I could read when I needed to escape the Catholicism around me.
As we gathered my things she explained why I was to work for the Vermeers. “You know that your new master is headman of the Guild of St. Luke, and was when your father had his accident last year?”
I nodded, still shocked that I was to work for such an artist.
“The Guild looks after its own, as best it can. Remember the box your father gave money to every week for years? That money goes to masters in need, as we are now. But it goes only so far, you see, especially now with Frans in his apprenticeship and no money coming in. We have no choice. We won’t take public charity, not if we can manage without. Then your father heard that your new master was looking for a maid who could clean his studio without moving anything, and he put forward your name, thinking that as headman, and knowing our circumstances, Vermeer would be likely to try to help.”
I sifted through what she had said. “How do you clean a room without moving anything?”
“Of course you must move things, but you must find a way to put them back exactly so it looks as if nothing has been disturbed. As you do for your father now that he cannot see.”
After my father’s accident we had learned to place things where he always knew to find them. It was one thing to do this for a blind man, though. Quite another for a man with a painter’s eyes.
Agnes said nothing to me after the visit. When I got into bed next to her that night she remained silent, though she did not turn her back to me. She lay gazing at the ceiling. Once I had blown out the candle it was so dark I could see nothing. I turned towards her.
“You know I don’t want to leave. I have to.”
“We need the money. We have nothing now that Father can’t work.”
“Eight stuivers a day isn’t such a lot of money.” Agnes had a hoarse voice, as if her throat were covered with cobwebs.
“It will keep the family in bread. And a bit of cheese. That’s not so little.”
“I’ll be all alone. You’re leaving me all alone. First Frans, then you.”
Of all of us Agnes had been the most upset when Frans left the previous year. He and she had always fought like cats but she sulked for days once he was gone. At ten she was the youngest of us three children, and had never before known a time when Frans and I were not there.
“Mother and Father will still be here. And I’ll visit on Sundays. Besides, it was no surprise when Frans went.” We had known for years that our brother would start his apprenticeship when he turned thirteen. Our father had saved hard to pay the apprentice fee, and talked endlessly of how Frans would learn another aspect of the trade, then come back and they would set up a tile factory together.
Now our father sat by the window and never spoke of the future.
After the accident Frans had come home for two days. He had not visited since. The last time I saw him I had gone to the factory across town where he was apprenticed. He looked exhausted and had burns up and down his arms from pulling tiles from the kiln. He told me he worked from dawn until so late that at times he was too tired even to eat. “Father never told me it would be this bad,” he muttered resentfully. “He always said his apprenticeship was the making of him.”
“Perhaps it was,” I replied. “It made him what he is now.”
When I was ready to leave the next morning my father shuffled out to the front step, feeling his way along the wall. I hugged my mother and Agnes. “Sunday will come in no time,” my mother said.
My father handed me something wrapped in a handkerchief. “To remind you of home,” he said. “Of us.”
It was my favorite tile of his. Most of his tiles we had at home were faulty in some way—chipped or cut crookedly, or the picture was blurred because the kiln had been too hot. This one, though, my father kept specially for us. It was a simple picture of two small figures, a boy and an older girl. They were not playing as children usually did in tiles. They were simply walking along, and were like Frans and me whenever we walked together—clearly our father had thought of us as he painted it. The boy was a little ahead of the girl but had turned back to say something. His face was mischievous, his hair messy. The girl wore her cap as I wore mine, not as most other girls did, with the ends tied under their chins or behind their necks. I favored a white cap that folded in a wide brim around my face, covering my hair completely and hanging down in points on each side of my face so that from the side my expression was hidden. I kept the cap stiff by boiling it with potato peelings.
I walked away from our house, carrying my things tied up in an apron. It was still early—our neighbors were throwing buckets of water onto their steps and the street in front of their houses, and scrubbing them clean. Agnes would do that now, as well as many of my other tasks. She would have less time to play in the street and along the canals. Her life was changing too.
People nodded at me and watched curiously as I passed. No one asked where I was going or called out kind words. They did not need to—they knew what happened to families when a man lost his trade. It would be something to discuss later—young Griet become a maid, her father brought the family low. They would not gloat, however. The same thing could easily happen to them.
I had walked along that street all my life, but had never been so aware that my back was to my home. When I reached the end and turned out of sight of my family, though, it became a little easier to walk steadily and look around me. The morning was still cool, the sky a flat grey-white pulled close over Delft like a sheet, the summer sun not yet high enough to burn it away. The canal I walked along was a mirror of white light tinged with green. As the sun grew brighter the canal would darken to the color of moss.
Frans, Agnes, and I used to sit along that canal and throw things in—pebbles, sticks, once a broken tile—and imagine what they might touch on the bottom—not fish, but creatures from our imagination, with many eyes, scales, hands and fins. Frans thought up the most interesting monsters. Agnes was the most frightened. I always stopped the game, too inclined to see things as they were to be able to think up things that were not.
There were a few boats on the canal, moving towards Market Square. It was not market day, however, when the canal was so full you couldn’t see the water. One boat was carrying river fish for the stalls at Jeronymous Bridge. Another sat low on the water, loaded with bricks. The man poling the boat called out a greeting to me. I merely nodded and lowered my head so that the edge of my cap hid my face.
I crossed a bridge over the canal and turned into the open space of Market Square, even then busy with people crisscrossing it on their way to some task—buying meat at the Meat Hall, or bread at the baker’s, taking wood to be weighed at the Weigh House. Children ran errands for their parents, apprentices for their masters, maids for their households. Horses and carts clattered across the stones. To my right was the Town Hall, with its gilded front and white marble faces gazing down from the keystones above the windows. To my left was the New Church, where I had been baptized sixteen years before. Its tall, narrow tower made me think of a stone birdcage. Father had taken us up it once. I would never forget the sight of Delft spread below us, each narrow brick house and steep red roof and green waterway and city gate marked forever in my mind, tiny and yet distinct. I asked my father then if every Dutch city looked like that, but he did not know. He had never visited any other city, not even The Hague, two hours away on foot.
I walked to the center of the square. There the stones had been laid to form an eight-pointed star set inside a circle. Each point aimed towards a different part of Delft. I thought of it as the very center of the town, and as the center of my life. Frans and Agnes and I had played in that star since we were old enough to run to the market. In our favorite game, one of us chose a point and one of us named a thing—a stork, a church, a wheelbarrow, a flower—and we ran in that direction looking for that thing. We had explored most of Delft that way.
One point, however, we had never followed. I had never gone to Papists’ Corner, where the Catholics lived. The house where I was to work was just ten minutes from home, the time it took a pot of water to boil, but I had never passed by it.
I knew no Catholics. There were not so many in Delft, and none in our street or in the shops we used. It was not that we avoided them, but they kept to themselves. They were tolerated in Delft, but were expected not to parade their faith openly. They held their services privately, in modest places that did not look like churches from the outside.
My father had worked with Catholics and told me they were no different from us. If anything they were less solemn. They liked to eat and drink and sing and game. He said this almost as if he envied them.
I followed that point of the star now, walking across the square more slowly than everyone else, for I was reluctant to leave its familiarity. I crossed the bridge over the canal and turned left up the Oude Langendijck. On my left the canal ran parallel to the street, separating it from Market Square.
At the intersection with the Molenpoort, four girls were sitting on a bench beside an open door of a house. They were arranged in order of size, from the oldest, who looked to be about Agnes’ age, to the youngest, who was probably about four. One of the middle girls held a baby in her lap—a large baby, who was probably already crawling and would soon be ready to walk.
Five children, I thought. And another expected.
The oldest was blowing bubbles through a scallop shell fixed to the end of a hollowed stick, very like one my father had made for us. The others were jumping up and popping the bubbles as they appeared. The girl with the baby in her lap could not move much, catching few bubbles although she was seated next to the bubble blower. The youngest at the end was the furthest away and the smallest, and had no chance to reach the bubbles. The second youngest was the quickest, darting after the bubbles and clapping her hands around them. She had the brightest hair of the four, red like the dry brick wall behind her. The youngest and the girl with the baby both had curly blond hair like their mother’s, while the eldest’s was the same dark red as her father’s.
I watched the girl with the bright hair swat at the bubbles, popping them just before they broke on the damp grey and white tiles set diagonally in rows before the house. She will be a handful, I thought. “You’d best pop them before they reach the ground,” I said. “Else those tiles will have to be scrubbed again.”
The eldest girl lowered the pipe. Four sets of eyes stared at me with the same gaze that left no doubt they were sisters. I could see various features of their parents in them—grey eyes here, light brown eyes there, angular faces, impatient movements.
“Are you the new maid?” the eldest asked.
“We were told to watch out for you,” the bright redhead interrupted before I could reply.
“Cornelia, go and get Tanneke,” the eldest said to her.
“You go, Aleydis,” Cornelia in turn ordered the youngest, who gazed at me with wide grey eyes but did not move.
“I’ll go.” The eldest must have decided my arrival was important after all.
“No, I’ll go.” Cornelia jumped up and ran ahead of her older sister, leaving me alone with the two quieter girls.
I looked at the squirming baby in the girl’s lap. “Is that your brother or your sister?”
“Brother,” the girl replied in a soft voice like a feather pillow. “His name is Johannes. Never call him Jan.” She said the last words as if they were a familiar refrain.
“I see. And your name?”
“Lisbeth. And this is Aleydis.” The youngest smiled at me. They were both dressed neatly in brown dresses with white aprons and caps.
“And your older sister?”
“Maertge. Never call her Maria. Our grandmother’s name is Maria. Maria Thins. This is her house.”
The baby began to whimper. Lisbeth joggled him up and down on her knee.
I looked up at the house. It was certainly grander than ours, but not as grand as I had feared. It had two stories, plus an attic, whereas ours had only the one, with a tiny attic. It was an end house, with the Molenpoort running down one side, so that it was a little wider than the other houses in the street. It felt less pressed in than many of the houses in Delft, which were packed together in narrow rows of brick along the canals, their chimneys and stepped roofs reflected in the green canal water. The ground-floor windows of this house were very high, and on the first floor there were three windows set close together rather than the two of other houses along the street.
From the front of the house the New Church tower was visible just across the canal. A strange view for a Catholic family, I thought. A church they will never even go inside.
“So you’re the maid, are you?” I heard behind me.
The woman standing in the doorway had a broad face, pockmarked from an earlier illness. Her nose was bulbous and irregular, and her thick lips were pushed together to form a small mouth. Her eyes were light blue, as if she had caught the sky in them. She wore a grey-brown dress with a white chemise, a cap tied tight around her head, and an apron that was not as clean as mine. She stood blocking the doorway, so that Maertge and Cornelia had to push their way out round her, and looked at me with crossed arms as if waiting for a challenge.
Already she feels threatened by me, I thought. She will bully me if I let her.
“My name is Griet,” I said, gazing at her levelly. “I am the new maid.”
The woman shifted from one hip to the other. “You’d best come in, then,” she said after a moment. She moved back into the shadowy interior so that the doorway was clear.
I stepped across the threshold.
What I always remembered about being in the front hall for the first time were the paintings. I stopped inside the door, clutching my bundle, and stared. I had seen paintings before, but never so many in one room. I counted eleven. The largest painting was of two men, almost naked, wrestling each other. I did not recognize it as a story from the Bible, and wondered if it was a Catholic subject. Other paintings were of more familiar things—piles of fruit, landscapes, ships on the sea, portraits. They seemed to be by several painters. I wondered which of them were my new master’s. None was what I had expected of him.
Later I discovered they were all by other painters—he rarely kept his own finished paintings in the house. He was an art dealer as well as an artist, and paintings hung in almost every room, even where I slept. There were more than fifty in all, though the number varied over time as he traded and sold them.
“Come now, no need to idle and gape.” The woman hurried down a lengthy hallway, which ran along one side of the house all the way to the back. I followed as she turned abruptly into a room on the left. On the wall directly opposite hung a painting that was larger than me. It was of Christ on the cross, surrounded by the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and St. John. I tried not to stare but I was amazed by its size and subject. “Catholics are not so different from us,” my father had said. But we did not have such pictures in our houses, or our churches, or anywhere. Now I would see this painting every day.
I was always to think of that room as the Crucifixion room. I was never comfortable in it.
The painting surprised me so much that I did not notice the woman in the corner until she spoke. “Well, girl,” she said, “that is something new for you to see.” She sat in a comfortable chair, smoking a pipe. Her teeth gripping the stem had gone brown, and her fingers were stained with ink. The rest of her was spotless—her black dress, lace collar, stiff white cap. Though her lined face was stern her light brown eyes seemed amused.
She was the kind of old woman who looked as if she would outlive everyone.
She is Catharina’s mother, I thought suddenly. It was not just the color of her eyes and the wisp of grey curl that escaped her cap in the same way as her daughter’s. She had the manner of someone used to looking after those less able than she—of looking after Catharina. I understood now why I had been brought to her rather than her daughter.
Though she seemed to look at me casually, her gaze was watchful. When she narrowed her eyes I realized she knew everything I was thinking. I turned my head so that my cap hid my face.
Maria Thins puffed on her pipe and chuckled. “That’s right, girl. You keep your thoughts to yourself here. So, you’re to work for my daughter. She’s out now, at the shops. Tanneke here will show you round and explain your duties.”
I nodded. “Yes, madam.”
Tanneke, who had been standing at the old woman’s side, pushed past me. I followed, Maria Thins’ eyes branding my back. I heard her chuckling again.
Tanneke took me first to the back of the house, where there were cooking and washing kitchens and two storage rooms. The washing kitchen led out to a tiny courtyard full of drying white laundry.
“This needs ironing, for a start,” Tanneke said. I said nothing, though it looked as if the laundry had not yet been bleached properly by the midday sun.
She led me back inside and pointed to a hole in the floor of one of the storage rooms, a ladder leading down into it. “You’re to sleep there,” she announced. “Drop your things there now and you can sort yourself out later.”
I reluctantly let my bundle drop into the dim hole, thinking of the stones Agnes and Frans and I had thrown into the canal to seek out the monsters. My things thudded onto the dirt floor. I felt like an apple tree losing its fruit.
I followed Tanneke back along the hallway, which all the rooms opened off—many more rooms than in our house. Next to the Crucifixion room where Maria Thins sat, towards the front of the house, was a smaller room with children’s beds, chamberpots, small chairs and a table, on it various earthenware, candlesticks, snuffers, and clothing, all in a jumble.
“The girls sleep here,” Tanneke mumbled, perhaps embarrassed by the mess.
She turned up the hallway again and opened a door into a large room, where light streamed in from the front windows and across the red and grey tiled floor. “The great hall,” she muttered. “Master and mistress sleep here.”
Their bed was hung with green silk curtains. There was other furniture in the room—a large cupboard inlaid with ebony, a whitewood table pushed up to the windows with several Spanish leather chairs arranged around it. But again it was the paintings that struck me. More hung in this room than anywhere else. I counted to nineteen silently. Most were portraits—they appeared to be members of both families. There was also a painting of the Virgin Mary, and one of the three kings worshipping the Christ Child. I gazed at both uneasily.
“Now, upstairs.” Tanneke went first up the steep stairs, then put a finger to her lips. I climbed as quietly as I could. At the top I looked around and saw the closed door. Behind it was a silence that I knew was him.
I stood, my eyes fixed on the door, not daring to move in case it opened and he came out.
Tanneke leaned towards me and whispered, “You’ll be cleaning in there, which the young mistress will explain to you later. And these rooms”—she pointed to the doors towards the back of the house—”are my mistress’s rooms. Only I go in there to clean.”
We crept downstairs again. When we were back in the washing kitchen Tanneke said, “You’re to take on the laundry for the house.” She pointed to a great mound of clothes—they had fallen far behind with their washing. I would struggle to catch up. “There’s a cistern in the cooking kitchen but you’d best get your water for washing from the canal—it’s clean enough in this part of town.”
“Tanneke,” I said in a low voice, “have you been doing all this yourself? The cooking and cleaning and washing for the house?”
I had chosen the right words. “And some of the shopping.” Tanneke puffed up with pride at her own industry. “Young mistress does most of it, of course, but she goes off raw meat and fish when she’s carrying a child. And that’s often,” she added in a whisper. “You’re to go to the Meat Hall and the fish stalls too. That will be another of your duties.”
With that she left me to the laundry. Including me, there were ten of us now in the house, one a baby who would dirty more clothes than the rest. I would be laundering every day, my hands chapped and cracked from the soap and water, my face red from standing over the steam, my back aching from lifting wet cloth, my arms burned by the iron. But I was new and I was young—it was to be expected I would have the hardest tasks.
The laundry needed to soak for a day before I could wash it. In the storage room that led down to the cellar I found two pewter waterpots and a copper kettle. I took the pots with me and walked up the long hallway to the front door.
The girls were sitting on the bench. Now Lisbeth had the bubble blower while Maertge fed baby Johannes bread softened with milk. Cornelia and Aleydis were chasing bubbles. When I appeared they all stopped what they were doing and looked at me expectantly.
“You’re the new maid,” the girl with the bright red hair declared.
Cornelia picked up a pebble and threw it across the road into the canal. There were long scratches up and down her arm—she must have been bothering the house cat.
“Where will you sleep?” Maertge asked, wiping mushy fingers on her apron.
“In the cellar.”
“We like it down there,” Cornelia said. “Let’s go and play there now!”
She darted inside but did not go far. When no one followed her she came back out, her face cross.
“Aleydis,” I said, extending my hand to the youngest girl, “will you show me where to get water from the canal?”
She took my hand and looked up at me. Her eyes were like two shiny grey coins. We crossed the street, Cornelia and Lisbeth following. Aleydis led me to stairs that descended to the water. As we peeked over I tightened my grip on her hand, as I had done years before with Frans and Agnes whenever we stood next to water.
“You stand back from the edge,” I ordered. Aleydis obediently took a step back. But Cornelia followed close behind me as I carried the pots down the steps.
“Cornelia, are you going to help me carry the water? If not, go back up to your sisters.”
She looked at me, and then she did the worst thing. If she had sulked or shouted, I would know I had mastered her. Instead she laughed.
I reached over and slapped her. Her face turned red, but she did not cry. She ran back up the steps. Aleydis and Lisbeth peered down at me solemnly.
I had a feeling then. This is how it will be with her mother, I thought, except that I will not be able to slap her.
I filled the pots and carried them to the top of the steps. Cornelia had disappeared. Maertge was still sitting with Johannes. I took one of the pots inside and back to the cooking kitchen, where I built up the fire, filled the copper kettle, and put it on to heat.
When I came back Cornelia was outside again, her face still flushed. The girls were playing with tops on the grey and white tiles. None of them looked up at me.
The pot I had left was missing. I looked into the canal and saw it floating, upside down, just out of reach of the stairs.
“Yes, you will be a handful,” I murmured. I looked around for a stick to fish it out with but could find none. I filled the other pot again and carried it inside, turning my head so that the girls could not see my face. I set the pot next to the kettle on the fire. Then I went outside again, this time with a broom.
Cornelia was throwing stones at the pot, probably hoping to sink it.
“I’ll slap you again if you don’t stop.”
“I’ll tell our mother. Maids don’t slap us.” Cornelia threw another stone.
“Shall I tell your grandmother what you’ve done?”
A fearful look crossed Cornelia’s face. She dropped the stones she held.
A boat was moving along the canal from the direction of the Town Hall. I recognized the man poling from earlier that day—he had delivered his load of bricks and the boat was riding much higher. He grinned when he saw me.
I blushed. “Please, sir,” I began, “can you help me get that pot?”
“Oh, you’re looking at me now that you want something from me, are you? There’s a change!”
Cornelia was watching me curiously.
I swallowed. “I can’t reach the pot from here. Perhaps you could—”
The man leaned over, fished out the pot, dumped the water from it, and held it out to me. I ran down the steps and took it from him. “Thank you. I’m most grateful.”
He did not let go of the pot. “Is that all I get? No kiss?” He reached over and pulled my sleeve. I jerked my arm away and wrestled the pot from him.
“Not this time,” I said as lightly as I could. I was never good at that sort of talk.
He laughed. “I’ll be looking for pots every time I pass here now, won’t I, young miss?” He winked at Cornelia. “Pots and kisses.” He took up his pole and pushed off.
As I climbed the steps back to the street I thought I saw a movement in the middle window on the first floor, the room where he was. I stared but could see nothing except the reflected sky.
Catharina returned while I was taking down laundry in the courtyard. I first heard her keys jangling in the hallway. They hung in a great bunch just below her waist, bouncing against her hip. Although they looked uncomfortable to me, she wore them with great pride. I then heard her in the cooking kitchen, giving orders to Tanneke and the boy who had carried things from the shops for her. She spoke harshly to both.
I continued to pull down and fold bedsheets, napkins, pillowcases, tablecloths, shirts, chemises, aprons, handkerchiefs, collars, caps. They had been hung carelessly, bunched in places so that patches of cloth were still damp. And they had not been shaken first, so there were creases everywhere. I would be ironing much of the day to make them presentable.
Catharina appeared at the door, looking hot and tired, though the sun was not yet at its highest. Her chemise puffed out messily from the top of her blue dress, and the green housecoat she wore over it was already crumpled. Her blond hair was frizzier than ever, especially as she wore no cap to smooth it. The curls fought against the combs that held them in a bun.
She looked as if she needed to sit quietly for a moment by the canal, where the sight of the water might calm and cool her.
I was not sure how I should be with her—I had never been a maid, nor had we ever had one in our house. There were no servants on our street. No one could afford one. I placed the laundry I was folding in a basket, then nodded at her. “Good morning, madam.”
She frowned and I realized I should have let her speak first. I would have to take more care with her.
“Tanneke has taken you round the house?” she said.
“Well, then, you will know what to do and you will do it.” She hesitated, as if at a loss for words, and it came to me that she knew little more about being my mistress than I did about being her maid. Tanneke had probably been trained by Maria Thins and still followed her orders, whatever Catharina said to her.
I would have to help her without seeming to.
“Tanneke has explained that besides the laundry you want me to go for the meat and fish, madam,” I suggested gently.
Catharina brightened. “Yes. She will take you when you finish with the washing here. After that you will go every day yourself. And on other errands as I need you,” she added.
“Yes, madam.” I waited. When she said nothing else I reached up to pull a man’s linen shirt from the line.
What People are Saying About This
"A portrait of radiance...Chevalier brings the real artist Vermeer and a fictional muse to life in a jewel of a novel." --Time magazine
"A vibrant, sumptuous novel...triumphant...a beautifully written tale that mirrors the elegance of the painting that inspired it." --The Wall Street Journal
"The richest, most rewarding novel I have read this year." --The Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Outstanding." --USA Today
"Marvelously evocative." --The New York Times
"Superb...vividly captures the world of 17th century Delft." --The San Francisco Chronicle
"Tracy Chevalier has so vividly imagined the life of the painter and his subject that you say to yourself: This is the way it must have been." --The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"A jewel of a novel." --The Miami Herald
Reading Group Guide
In mid-career, the renowned 17th century Baroque artist Johannes Vermeer painted "Girl with a Pearl Earring," which has been called the Dutch Mona Lisa. Girl with a Pearl Earring tells the story behind the advent of this famous painting, all the while depicting life in 17th century Delft, a small Dutch city with a burgeoning art community.
The novel centers on Griet, the Protestant daughter of a Delft tile painter who lost his sight in a kiln accident. In order to bring income to her struggling family, Griet must work as a maid for a more financially sound family. When Jan Vermeer and his wife approve of Griet as a maid for their growing Catholic household, she leaves home and quickly enters adult life. The Vermeer household, with its five children, grandmother and long-time servant, is ready to make Griet's working life difficult. Though her help is sorely needed, her beauty and innocence are both coveted and resented. Vermeer's wife Catharina, long banished from her husband's studio for her clumsiness and lack of genuine interest in art, is immediately wary of Griet, a visually talented girl who exhibits signs of artistic promise. Taneke, the faithful servant to the grandmother, proves her protective loyalty by keeping a close eye on Griet's every move.
The artist himself, however, holds another view entirely of the young maid. Recognizing Griet's talents, Vermeer takes her on as his studio assistant and surreptitiously teaches her to grind paints and develop color palettes in the remote attic. Though reluctant to overstep her boundaries in the cagey Vermeer household, Griet is overjoyed both to work with her intriguing master and to lend some breath to her natural inclinations—colors and composition—neither of which she had ever been able to develop. Together, Vermeer and Griet conceal the apprenticeship from the family until Vermeer's most prominent patron demands that the lovely maid be the subject of his next commissioned work. Vermeer must paint Griet—an awkward, charged situation for them both.
Chevalier's account of the artistic process—from the grinding of paints to the inclusion and removal of background objects—lay at the core of the novel. Her inventive portrayal of this tumultuous time, when Protestantism began to dominate Catholicism and the growing bourgeoisie took the place of the Church as patrons of the arts, draws the reader into a lively, if little known, time and place in history.
A LITTLE BACKGROUND
The Baroque period is remembered less by one specific style of art than as a period of time. Derived from the Portuguese "barocco" for "irregular pearl," Baroque was comprised of many diversions from Biblically based Renaissance painting. The Protestant Reformation unleashed artists from rote depictions of scenes from the Bible and allowed them to venture into increasingly more interesting domestic domains. Ladies of the day would pose before silent musical instruments in rooms adorned with the trappings of success, like maps of newly explored territories and shelves with expensive volumes of books. As the merchant class gained monetary status in the community, so did their desire to be painted, just as royalty was just a few decades earlier.
Jan Vermeer (1632-1675), a native of Delft who never left the small city, relied on the bourgeoisie for his living. A converted Catholic for his wedding day, Vermeer struggled to support a large family. Many of his paintings depict the wives or daughters of his Protestant patrons caught in the middle of common household actions—pouring a pitcher of water, writing a letter, or playing an instrument. He strove for realism, going so far as to blend sand in his paints to create an accurate texture of bricks in the famous portrait of his hometown, "View of Delft."
The most well known departure from Vermeer's calculated paintings is the intriguing, mysterious subject of "Girl with a Pearl Earring," thought to be painted in 1665. In the painting, a young woman, adorned in an unusual head wrap and wearing a prominent pearl-drop earring, turns to face the painter over her left shoulder—eyes sympathetic and slightly lowered, mouth demurely parted. The moment captured by the painting is captivating—sexually charged yet undeniably innocent. This is the subject of Chevalier's novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring. The novel both recognizes the painting's historic and artistic intensity and monopolizes on that intensity to create a fascinating story of a young girl in a small city during a unique period of time. Few authors could make the leaps necessary to enliven a centuries-old painting for modern readers. Tracy Chevalier achieves all this and more, keeping her audience wondering what the novel's outcome will bring as well as what facts their art history texts hold. Readers and art lovers alike will find this novel engaging, evocative, and insightful.
ABOUT TRACY CHEVALIER
Raised in Washington D.C., Tracy Chevalier moved to England in 1984 after graduating from Oberlin College in Ohio. Initially intending to attend one semester abroad, she studied for a semester and never returned. After working as a literary editor for several years, Chevalier chose to pursue her own writing career and in 1994, she graduated with a degree in creative writing at the University of East Anglia. Her first novel, The Virgin Blue, was chosen by W. H. Smith for its Fresh Talent promotion in 1997. She lives in London with her husband and son and hopes to see all of Vermeer's thirty-five known paintings in her lifetime (thus far, she's seen twenty-eight of them).
AN INTERVIEW WITH TRACY CHEVALIER
Everyday life in 17th century Delft is so vivid in Girl with a Pearl Earring. How did you conduct your research? Where?
Most of it, I confess, was done in my armchair. I read a lot (especially Simon Schama's The Embarrassment Of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in The Golden Age) and looked at a lot of paintings. Luckily 17th-century Dutch paintings are mainly scenes from everyday life and so it was easy to see what houses looked like inside and how they were run. I also went to Delft for four days and just wandered around, taking it in. Vermeer's house no longer exists, but there are plenty of 17th-century buildings still left, as well as the Market Square, the Meat Hall, the canals and bridges. It's not hard to get an idea of what it was like then.
Little is known of Vermeer's life—at least compared with other Baroque painters like Rembrandt. Why did you choose Vermeer's work to write about?
I chose Vermeer's work because it is so beautiful and so mysterious. In his paintings, the solitary women going about their domestic tasks—pouring milk, reading letters, weighing gold, putting on a necklace—inhabit a world that we are getting a secret glimpse at. And because it feels secret—the women don't seem to know we're looking at them—it seems also that something else is going on underneath, something mysterious we can't quite grasp. The fact that so little is known about Vermeer was happenstance—happily so, as it turned out, for it meant I could make up a lot without worrying about things being "true" or not.
Were you inspired by this particular painting or by Vermeer's work in general?
I was inspired specifically by this particular painting, though I know his other work as well. A poster of this painting has hung on the wall of my bedroom since I was nineteen and I often lie in bed and look at it and wonder about it. It's such an open painting. I'm never sure what the girl is thinking or what her expression is. Sometimes she seems sad, other times seductive. So, one morning a couple years ago I was lying in bed worrying about what I was going to write next, and I looked up at the painting and wondered what Vermeer did or said to the model to get her to look like that. And right then I made up the story.
Is Girl with a Pearl Earring a true story? To what extent is it based in fact?
It isn't a true story. No one knows who the girl is, or in fact who any of the people in his paintings are. Very little is known about Vermeer—he left no writings, not even any drawings, just 35 paintings. The few known facts are based on legal documents—his baptism, his marriage, the births of his children, his will. I was careful to be true to the known facts; for instance, he married Catharina Bolnes and they had eleven surviving children. Other facts are not so clear-cut and I had to make choices: he may or may not have lived in the house of his mother-in-law (I decided he did); he converted to Catholicism at the time of his marriage but not necessarily because Catharina was Catholic (I decided he did); he may have been friends with the scientist Antony van Leeuwenhoek, who invented the microscope (I decided he was). But there was a lot I simply made up.
You chose to give your novel the same title as the painting. Is there a greater purpose for this? What sort of a relationship do you see the novel and the painting having?
The novel has the same name as the painting because the painting is the culmination of the story; its creation is what the story is leading up to. It also points up the earring, which is important as a symbol because it represents the world Griet gets drawn into and ultimately rejected from. The novel could not exist without the painting. I would never have written it, and I don't think it would have the same resonance with readers if the painting didn't exist.
Do you paint? If not, how did you learn about the process and tools?
I don't paint, though I did take a painting class while writing this book so I could find out a little about how it's done. I was absolutely awful at it, but I learned a lot. I also read about Vermeer's painting technique, and spoke with the woman who restored the painting for the 1996 Vermeer exhibition. She was able to explain to me some of the finer details of how he painted. As for the paints and how they were made, I found some old books about making paints and learned from them. I also bought some linseed oil (which is mixed with pigment to make paint) and left the bottle open as I was writing so that I could smell what they would have smelled.
17th century literature reflected religious and social changes just like 17th century painting. Milton's radical Paradise Lost was published during this time. Did you consider this sort of thing when writing an historical novel?
I didn't consider Paradise Lost, but clearly religious change in the Netherlands at the time was a very important issue. The Dutch had just thrown off the rule of the Catholic Spanish and were keen to distance themselves from Catholicism. Protestantism suited their natures. The Dutch Catholics were tolerated but were seen as slightly outside the system, which is fascinating when you consider that Vermeer actually converted to Catholicism, and so chose to be a maverick. You have to consider religious and social change when writing historical novels. They are essential to the push and pull of the story. In fact, all my novels are historical and set during periods of great social change. My first novel, The Virgin Blue (published in Britain), is set during the 16th century Reformation in France, and the novel I'm working on now is set in England at the beginning of the 20th century and up through World War I.
While reading the novel, I couldn't help examining and re-examining the painting every few pages. Did you write the novel with the painting at hand?
Oh yes. With all his paintings, in fact. I kept the catalogue from the 1996 Vermeer exhibition almost permanently open. Most of the characters' looks are based on people in his other paintings. In fact, if you want to see which paintings link to which people, check out the book's website at www.pearlearring.com.
Did you know how the story ended before you started writing?
Yes. I had the whole story worked out (except for the odd detail) before I started writing. This is unusual for me. Often I know only some of the story before I start writing. This book was a dream to write because of that and because the style is so spare.
Why the camera obscura*? It plays such an important part, lending all sorts of ideas about technology and foreshadowing what's to come.
*For more information on the camera obscura, visit the book's website at www.pearlearring.com.
The camera obscura is a tangible representation of a different way of looking. Griet has the capacity to look in a different way, but she needs Vermeer to show her how. He does that partly with the help of the camera obscura. It also reminds us that in order to see clearly you have to focus, shut out the world and look at one corner of a room. That is what Vermeer's paintings do—they reveal the world in a room. That is also what the novel tries to do—it is deliberately narrow and focused, and in it is a whole world.
What's next? Are you ready to work on another historical novel?
Yes. The next novel is set in a Victorian cemetery in London at the turn of the century and up through World War I. It's about two girls whose families have adjacent plots at the cemetery, and the apprentice gravedigger they meet there. In a wider sense the book is about the changing values at the beginning of the modern era, looked at through the changing attitudes to death and mourning. The Victorians bought elaborate tombs for their dead and followed strict and elaborate mourning rituals, but by the end of World War I graves became much simpler and mourning was conducted in private. Why did this change occur? The book attempts to answer that. I can't seem to write a contemporary novel. I suppose I'm more comfortable in the past, where I know what is important and lasting. If I write about today, I worry that it will date in ten years' time.
- Do you think Griet was typical of other girls her age? In what ways? How did she differ? Did you find her compassionate or selfish? Giving or judgmental?
- In many ways, the primary relationship in this novel appears to be between Griet and Vermeer. Do you think this is true? How do you feel about Vermeer's relationship with his wife? How does that come into play?
- Peering into 17th century Delft shows a small, self-sufficient city. Where do you think the many-pointed star at the city's center pointed toward? What was happening elsewhere at that time?
- Discuss the ways religion affected Griet's relationship with Vermeer. His wife? Maria Thins?
- Maria Thins obviously understood Vermeer's art more than his wife did. Why do you think this was the case? Do you think she shared Griet's talents?
- Do you think Griet made the right choice when she married the butcher's son? Did she have other options?
- How is Delft different to or similar to your town or city? Are the social structures comparable?
- Though Girl with a Pearl Earring appears to be about one man and woman, there are several relationships at work. Which is the most difficult relationship? Which is the most promising?