Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Tiffany Girl includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Deeanne Gist. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
The heir to Tiffany’s jewelry empire is left without a staff when glassworkers go on strike just months before the opening of the much-anticipated 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the hyped mosaic Tiffany Chapel. Desperate and without another option, Tiffany turns to a group of female art students to finish the job. Flossie Jayne answers the call, moving into a New York City boardinghouse with high hopes of making a name for herself as an artist and defying those who say that the work can’t be completed in time—least of all by a set of young, inexperienced women. As Flossie flouts polite society’s restrictions on females, her ambitions become threatened from an unexpected quarter: her own heart. What or who will claim victory? Her dreams or the captivating boarder next door?
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. What is the historic significance of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s idea to hire women workers as replacements for the striking glasscutters? Do you think the move would have been as controversial had their employer and his project been of lesser notoriety? Would it have been as significant? Why or why not?
2. On page 6, Flossie compliments her mother: “every gown you make is nothing short of a work of art.” Do you think Flossie’s glass cutting or Aggie’s foil wrapping are merely supportive to Tiffany’s art or are they art forms in and of themselves? How would you define what is and is not art?
3. Why is Flossie’s father so upset about her living in a boarding house? Explore the concept of a lifestyle that is “appropriate” for a woman of her station. What types of behaviors, tasks, activities, and even purposes are clearly designated as belonging to the world of women in the novel? What about the world of men? Do you find these boundaries logical, or are they rooted in something else? If you can, use examples to support your opinion.
4. It’s clear all along that Tiffany has created an enormous opportunity for both the Tiffany Girls and for the greater “New Woman” movement, but in doing so also creates enormous tension. After all, the women’s opportunity comes at the expense of the “hundred-plus men who were striking for reasonable hours and better wages” (p. 38). How does this factor influence your feelings about the situation? Imagine yourself in Flossie’s shoes—what would you do?
5. What is it about the New Woman that so threatens and offends men and women alike? How do you feel about the reasons characters give in opposition to the movement?
6. Flossie “merely wanted to be paid for her labor so she could go to art school. She had a hard time seeing how that was going to lead to the deterioration of the entire human race.” (p. 84) Reeve’s arguments against the women’s liberation movement were drawn from actual articles written at the turn of the century. How do his opinions differ from Flossie’s parents’ or the striking protesters? If you had to take a position against Flossie, would you go with Reeve’s, Papa’s, or the strikers?
7. Identify some of the ways in which Flossie and other New Women suffered for their efforts to step outside of their prescribed roles. Discuss the dichotomy of the men in the novel who are against the women’s movement because they want to respect and protect the “fairer sex,” yet they mistreat the working women and even students. How did you expect Flossie to react to the men who harassed her? If you were a nineteenth-century woman, what would you have done in her place?
8. Reeve acts out of deep hurt caused by abandonment and isolation in his childhood. In what ways does he re-create these familiar environments and feelings as an adult? Why do you suppose present-day society is accepting of depression, yet loneliness is taboo?
9. Why do you think Reeve has such affection and feelings of obligation toward Mrs. Dinwiddie? What is it about Flossie that at first drives him mad and then later drives him mad with love? Discuss these two primary relationships in Reeve’s life and consider their differences and similarities.
10. Despite Reeve’s initial impression of the New Woman, he comes to understand that there are many reasons a woman may choose to take on a “man’s responsibilites.” For example, when he visits his childhood home he finds himself discussing finances with Mrs. Gusman. How does this make him feel? How does he ultimately come to grips with the situation? Identify some of the circumstances in the novel that necessitates women taking on roles commonly ascribed to men.
11. When Nan goes home ill, Flossie takes it upon herself to make new choices for the glass panels she will cut to use in a nativity scene, and the results are not as she expected. What does this experience teach Flossie about her work and about herself?
12. Reeve thinks Flossie is spoiled. Do you agree? Why or why not? When Flossie berates herself for being selfish on page 320, do you think she’s finally getting clarity or is she being too hard on herself? Do you think a modern woman would assess herself the same way? Would you?
13. Reeve seems to suffer from two main “walls”: the emotional one that maintains his isolation, and the one that bars his understanding of what the New Woman truly wants and why. What begins to open his eyes to the realities that girls like Flossie face? What instigates the first trickle of empathy for their cause and how does he react to this revelation? Did his reaction surprise you? Why or why not?
14. Flossie decides before ever moving into the boardinghouse that all the other borders will become the large family she never had but always longed for. What series of events cause Flossie to realize that her “family at 438” is not what she thought? How does this realization change her? Do you think it’s for the better, or for the worse? Why?
15. When Flossie discovers that Reeve is the infamous I. D. Claire and that he has based his protagonist on her, she is furious because she feels he’s made a public fool of her. But Reeve protests that she and his fictional character Marylee are not the same person. At what point does Reeve himself begin to understand this distinction? Later, how does Flossie identify with Marylee?
16. In many ways, this novel plays with the theme of perception, or how you see yourself versus how you are seen by others. What do you think the novel says about the weight you give to what others think of you? Do you believe there is value in questioning perspectives and ideas, either about others or about yourself? Why or why not? How might the story have unfolded differently if Flossie did not challenge her own perspectives, or Reeve’s his?
17. In the end, Reeve has what he always wanted—a home where he belongs. What is it that Flossie wants most, and do you think she gets it? Why or why not?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. One of Deeanne’s passions is learning about the period clothing worn by her characters. She even hired a historian seamstress to sew her an authentic Victorian gown so she could experience what it was like to wear all those layers. (See pictures and videos of her in an article that appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal at http://www.FrontPageWSJ.com.) Since taking “old time” photos—sepia or black-and-white—of yourself in period costume has become a worldwide amusement, you might be able to find a novelty photo studio near you where you, alone or with your book club, can take photos in Victorian dress. Check out your local listings or visit the Antique and Amusement Photographers International website at http://www.oldtimephotos.org/. Be sure to send your pictures to Deeanne or post them on her Facebook page. She’d love to see them!
2. In order to create bonds among her new family at the boarding house, Flossie writes insightful and sometimes light-hearted questions for the boarders to ask one another over dinner. Host a dinner for your book club members. Have each person write one question on a slip of paper, then before everyone comes to the table, place them randomly underneath the plates. Enjoy listening to each other’s answers and see if you don’t know everyone a bit better by dessert!
3. On her website (http://www.iwantherbook.com/dees-inspiration-for-her-characters), the author reveals celebrity and modeling photos that inspired her to create her characters for each novel. Before visiting the link, cut out photos that reflect how you envision characters like Flossie, Mr. and Mrs. Trostle, Reeve, Mrs. Dinwiddie, and more. Paste them on a board or piece of paper and share your choices with your book club. Did your picks match Deeanne’s? Were you surprised by the ones she chose?
4. If you enjoyed reading about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Deeanne’s last two releases, It Happened at the Fair and Fair Play, are set in Chicago at the actual fair (as opposed to in New York the way Tiffany Girl is). Read and compare those stories to that of Flossie and Reeve in Tiffany Girl. How are they similar? How are they different?
5. Do you wish you could go back in time and visit the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair? During your book club meeting, connect a laptop to the host’s TV, then go to Deeanne’s website and play her interactive animated four-minute game, “A Romp Through 1893,” where the hero from It Happened at the Fair becomes separated from the heroine and has to find her. At the end of each 60-second vignette, your club will have to make a choice about what the hero should do to resolve a dilemma he finds himself in. The object of the game is to get through the adventure without making a wrong turn. You’ll find the adventure at http://www.iwantherbook.com/video-adventure. Don’t let your group spend too much time making a choice, though, because you only have a few seconds to click an option! For an extra bonus, have the host of the group go (in advance) to Deeanne’s “Insider Information” link on her website and pull photos of Deeanne and her family members and print them out. Then show them to the group and have a contest to see who can spot Deeanne and her family members’cameo appearances during the video game.
A Conversation with Deeanne Gist
This is your third novel to feature aspects of the Chicago World’s Fair. What is it about that event or moment in history that so attracts you?
The breadth and scope of this particular fair not only wowed the world back then, but it would wow today’s most jaded visitor. It had something for everyone of every age and every nationality. It was not just an event, it was the event of the century—a watershed moment in our country’s history. It’s where the inspiration for today’s American products, industries, corporations, and cultural movements began. And even though I camped there for three novels, I still only touched the tip of the iceberg.
When did you first learn the story of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s chapel and the “Tiffany Girls?” What compelled you to write a novel about a fictional woman rather than one of the actual Tiffany Girls?
The discovery of the Tiffany Girls is brand-new. Everyone has always assumed Louis Tiffany was the exclusive designer of all his iconic objects. Then in 2005, scholars uncovered a trove of letters written by Clara Driscoll. Those letters made it abundantly clear that she and other Tiffany Girls were the principal designers of a vast majority of iconic lamps, windows, and other pieces produced by Tiffany Studios.
I found out about them in 2011 when my mom was watching a documentary on PBS. As soon as the show was over, she sent me the following email:
“Dee, Louis Comfort Tiffany was planning a crucially important display of his stained-glass windows for the Chicago World’s Fair. Not of his lamps, but I think a fairly new direction for him at this time. Anyway, his glass artists (an all male profession) went on strike. He went to the art schools and recruited female artists and taught them the process. They became known as the ‘Tiffany Girls.’ About a dozen of them, I think. This is the first time women were given the opportunity to enter the commercial art profession according to the PBS program I was watching. This information was from a PBS History Detectives episode that was focusing on one of these girls who was originally from Duluth, Minnesota, and was somebody’s grandmother. I didn’t get the name of the collection of information on the ‘Tiffany Girls,’ which I think is in the archives in a church in NYC. They have a number of stained-glass windows by these women done through the years. Anyway, if you haven’t picked your heroine’s career, this is a unique point in women’s career opportunities and, of course, Tiffany is a fantastic name and tradition. I was fascinated, even though this info was peripheral to the program. Love, Mom”
I knew as soon as I read her email that I’d one day write their story. I fictionalized my girl so that I would have more creative freedom with the storyline while still giving an inside glimpse of the real Tiffany Girls, their department head, Clara Driscoll, and their accomplishments.
As the bestselling author of ten historicals, have you developed a unique approach to blending truth and imagination? Tell us about your writing process and how you decide when to stick with the facts and when to let your imagination take over.
I spend months and months on research. I interview experts. I visit historical societies. I explore museums. I read newspapers of the time. I spend days in the city where my book is set. And I read a great many books and articles. I make notes in the margins of everything I read, then index those notes so the information will be at my fingertips during the writing process.
I do this because I very much want to get the historical facts correct. Sometimes, however, the facts don’t fit in with the timeline of my story. For instance, in 1893 the Tiffany Girls had not started designing the iconic lamps they became so famous for. That didn’t happen until several years later. Still, I could not bring myself to write an entire novel about the Tiffany Girls and not give the lamps a shout-out. So, I bent the timeline a little and had Clara Driscoll design one of her most famous—the dragonfly lamp. In the very first novel I ever wrote, I did this kind of thing with a handful of details and received emails from readers who were unhappy with me about it. So now, I always include an Author’s Note where I confess to the details I’ve cheated on so the reader will know fact from fiction.
How has your background in education and journalism influenced your work as an author? Has it helped with the nonwriting activities as well, like speaking to groups or promoting your work online?
The background in journalism helped me learn how to meet word counts and deadlines. The education background helped me with organization. As for speaking to groups, I have a minor in Theatre Arts. If I hadn’t found true love and married the week after I graduated from Texas A&M, I’d planned to head to Hollywood and give it a whirl. I have no regrets, though. I got me a keeper. We celebrated thirty-two years of wedded bliss a few months ago.
You donned appropriate period garb for the making of your video adventure, “Romp Through 1893: The Invitation.” Though the video was created to promote your previous novels, the clothing must have been pretty similar to what was worn in the period of Tiffany Girl, also set in 1893. Did you love wearing the clothes? Hate it? Was there anything about the experience that surprised you?
I will find ANY excuse to play dress up. I love costumes. I love pretty gowns. I love fancy hats. The reason I had a period gown made for the video adventure RompThrough1893.com is because I thought we were going to shoot it with live actors. For a lot of different reasons, we ended up animating it instead, but the historial clothing helped the artist Monica Bruenjes, who did the stop-animation. For Tiffany Girl, since Flossie is an artist, Bruenjes took on the heroine’s role so that “Flossie’s” illustrations could be sprinkled throughout the novel. It was a real treat for me to see sketches and paintings I made up in my head become a reality.
On your website you have a fun feature where you reveal the photos of real people—many of whom are celebrities—that you used as inspiration for your characters’ appearances. Who did you have in mind when you created Flossie Jayne and Reeve Wilder? Do you find photos for your secondary characters as well?
For each novel I write, I put together a thick, thick binder where I keep copious notes on the characters, the plotting, the setting, and the research. In the “character” section, I have written notes about eye color, hair color, hobbies, talents, personality traits, family members, goals, regrets, internal conflicts, and all kinds of things. I also find a real person to use as visual inspiration for my characters. This helps me be consistent throughout the novel when I am picturing them in my mind (and then describing them in the book). For Flossie, I used Sandra Bullock as my inspiration. For Reeve, I envisioned a muscular and tall Jude Law minus the receding hairline. (When it comes to my male protagonists, they are predominantly tall and muscular with a head full of hair. So I usually just use a real man’s facial features for inspiration.)
I found several group photos of the Tiffany Girls, but the images weren’t very clear. So other than Clara, I used random tintype photos for those girls. Jean Dujardin was the inspiration for Monsieur Bourgeois. For the boarders, my inspiration came from the following: Betty White for Mrs. Dinwiddie; Hugh Grant for Mr. Oyster; Richard Gere for Mr. Holliday; Melissa Sue Anderson (who played the older sister on Little House on the Prairie) for Mrs. Holliday; Jerry Stiller (with a goatee) for Mr. Trostle; Maggie Smith for Mrs. Trostle. I used old tintypes for Annie Belle, Mr. Nettels, and Mrs. Klausmeyer.
You begin the story with a Prologue that shows us Reeve as a small boy viewing the body of his dead mother. Why did you choose to open the novel—the main themes of which involve women and women characters—this way?
Basically because Reeve acts like a bit of a jerk at the beginning of the novel and I wanted the reader to know that deep down he was a good guy and it would be okay to root for him. Showing this scene was the quickest, cleanest, and most compelling way I could think of to do this.
You and your husband have four children. What was it like for you to get inside the minds of Victorian parents like Mr. and Mrs. Jayne, who love and want the best for their daughter, but whose ideas about what’s best are very different from Flossie’s? Do you find that much of your life ends up in your novels, or do you prefer to use fiction as a way to explore experiences that are different from your own?
For this facet of the novel, I read several resource books about the only-child and collected notes about what many of them have in common. An overwhelming majority of them have parents who devote a lot of time and attention to the child and who also, often inadvertently, put a lot of pressure on them. In addition to that, many sources explored what they call an epidemic in our country of kids who are told they didn’t misspell a word on their test but simply spelled the word “creatively.” Or kids who get trophies for simply showing up. As a parent, when I read these books, even though I have four children, I was guilty of doing many of the things depicted. I had the best of intentions, but the end result wasn’t always the healthiest. In Tiffany Girl, I decided to explore some of these themes and therefore assigned to Flossie and her parents some of the characteristics I read about.
At first, Flossie is overjoyed to live among so many people in the boardinghouse—perhaps Reeve would say that she is simply enjoying her role as the sun around which they all orbit. But in the end, he seems to have been right when he chastises her about mistaking their fellow boarders for family, as they become less congenial to her as soon as her role shifts from boarder to housemaid. Did you intend a lesson for readers in all this?
I actually based this part on things I’d read in journals from the time period and other resources. Because boardinghouses were so suspect, reputable boarders attempted to “pretty them up” by trying to turn them into homes—albeit unsuccessfully. I found that fascinating and decided I’d have Flossie do that very thing. So her actions (and the results thereof ) were based on historical data as opposed to a “lesson” of some kind.
Mr. Jayne seems committed to ignoring his role as the instigator for Flossie’s venture into New Womanhood, not to mention the financial ruin his gambling problem causes for his family. Despite that, you’ve portrayed Mr. Jayne as a man who loves his family and who in general seems to be a decent person. Was it challenging for you to balance his flaws as a provider with his charms as a father? What were the biggest challenges of writing this book?
In the general scheme of things, I’ve found that be it villain or hero, no one person is all bad or all good. We humans are a complicated mixture of both. There are a lot of fathers (and mothers, as well) who love their children, but who make disastrous personal decisions that adversely affect the ones they love most. I’d certainly like to go back and change a few choices I made along the way. So that wasn’t so much of a challenge. For me, the biggest challenge of writing this book was finishing it after the sudden loss of my own father. Sitting down day after day, pushing my grief to the side and finishing my pages was, my friend, one of the toughest things I’ve ever done in my life.
In your Author’s Note, you explain that for many of Reeve’s essays you used actual newspaper clippings and other writings from the 1890s so as to accurately reflect the opinions of the day. How did you feel sifting through these opinions? Did you find what you expected?
I knew the views were strong, but to see it in black and white like that was quite startling. Some of the things I read I intentionally left out of Reeve’s writings because they would have made him so unheroic I was afraid the reader would find him unworthy of holding the male lead of the story. I really came to appreciate just how hard my female forbearers had to fight to overcome the prejudices of the time. I also saw that the motives of the men were not nefarious or self-serving. They truly thought they were protecting the women, society, and all of humankind. So at the end of the day, it was hard not to extend them a little grace.
In an interview with RT Book Reviews, you described your journey from being the “bad girl” of inspirational fiction to being a “good girl” now that you’ve crossed into the general market. Do you find that your writing is significantly different now that your audience has broadened? Why or why not?
My writing hasn’t really changed all that much. When I wrote for the inspirational market, my editor simply pointed out the parts she thought might be troublesome, and together we figured our what parts to keep in and what parts to take out. And even though I have a very deep faith, I feel a book can be inspirational without proselytizing. My editor agreed and always allowed me to incorporate the inspirational aspect of the story in a way I felt comfortable with. For me, it was like weaving a fine gold thread into a colorful plaid—it wasn’t anything that dominated or jumped out at you, but was instead something that added a bit of beauty in a very subtle way. With my general market books, both the hero and heroine still have Christian worldviews—which is very true to the times—but there isn’t an underlying faith element.
Flossie seems happy that Marylee Merrily marries Mr. Bookish, but disturbed and unhappy that Marylee gives up her photography career, secretly wishing that the heroine could have had both. Though Reeve agrees to Flossie’s proposal that all their earnings be “our money,” it isn’t clear that she will continue working, especially since Tiffany has a policy against employing married women. Did you imagine that Flossie would work after marriage? Why or why not?
As much as I wanted Flossie to continue working after marriage, it would have been grossly inaccurate from a historical perspective, especially if she was a Tiffany employee. His stance on this issue was well documented and adhered to. Even Clara Driscoll had to leave his employ after marriage.
In the ending of The Merry Maid of Mumford Street, Mr. Bookish might have been willing to let his wife continue with photography, but he would not have allowed her to earn wages doing it. My concession for Flossie in Tiffany Girl was that even though Mr. Tiffany would not keep her on as an employee, Reeve was perfectly willing for her to earn—and keep—any wages produced through her painting. It might not have tied everything up in the pretty little bow we often long for, but it was as much as I was willing to compromise on the historically accurate scale.