Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland

I was attracted by the idea of this book when it came out in January, and I’ve just now gotten around to it. I’m really enjoying reading books pre-publication for Shelf Awareness, but it’s also nice to sneak one in every once in a while that’s NOT a thriller/suspense/murder-mystery. For that matter, I have some classics to read for the Classics Challenge, and I’ve been talking about Don Quixote

But at any rate. Recently, on a whim, I picked up Clara and Mr. Tiffany, and it immediately grabbed me with its lovely writing, evocative of the artistic beauty the book revolves around. Clara, the narrator, works for a living in the 1890’s, and before the action of the book begins, has already had to choose between marriage (even… love?) and her passion for her work. Clara Driscoll, a real historical figure, was the artist behind much of the stained glass and the legendary lamps for which the Tiffany name is so famous. Vreeland has fictionalized her story for us here. Clara also has quite a bit in common with another historical figure I read about recently: Annie Londonderry took her extraordinary ride during the same years in which this book begins. It gave me a nice little thrill to recognize the historical setting, especially because the two female characters have so much in common. Reading these two books back-to-back allowed me to immerse myself even more in the times, and I’m tempted to head right into The Devil in the White City next. We’ll see.

I want to share a beautiful excerpt with you to illustrate the writing style.

…I carefully wrapped in a hand towel the one thing I had that no one could wrench from me – the kaleidoscope, his engagement gift to me. Bits of richly colored glass in a chamber served as his sweet acknowledgement that I’d had to give up my joyous work with just such glass in order to marry him. At the slightest turn of the maple-wood tube, the design collapsed with a tiny rattle of falling objects, and in a burst of an instant, nothing was the same.

Vreeland’s writing is quietly lovely and melodic; it expertly creates both a mood and a pacing to match the world in which Clara lives and works, and also evokes the colors, art, and beauty that involve her so deeply. Clara is an artist, first and foremost; she wants to design, to create, to replicate nature (she loves flowers, insects, the sea, leaves) and uplift the human spirit. As a woman at the turn of the century, though, she faces a number of challenges as a working woman, as a single woman, and as a craftswoman intent on earning a living, knowing she deserves one. She’s tormented by the frustrations of being unrecognized by Tiffany and by the world, as Tiffany (the man, and the company) receive accolades for her work. But she’s also tormented by guilt for what she thinks of as her narcissism – in that she desires credit at all.

Clara is a well-developed character. We see her progress, for example, as a feminist. She doesn’t set out with any high-minded ideals, but rather develops them as the world fails to treat her fairly. Clara heads up the Women’s Department at Tiffany, and her “girls” are described in varying detail; some of them become very real and sympathetic characters, and many of them serve to portray the experiences of immigrant workers in New York during this time. When their department comes under attack from the unionized male employees, Clara organizes the women to march into work together through a picket line – not striking, since the union doesn’t recognize them, but vilified all the same. This part of the story serves to underline that not all feminist demonstrators began as idealists or radicals, but rather that “regular” women were forced to stick up for themselves or die quietly. I appreciated that point.

Over the course of the book (spanning 1892-1908), she has a series of relationships: we meet her freshly widowed, she is courted by several men, and has a number of very close friendships. I found her heartfelt friendships, with men and with women, to be very touching. She struggles with love, with the idea that she’ll never find a satisfying romantic relationship with a man; with finding respect and fulfillment at work; with creating ideal art and beauty and being recognized for it. The story is of art, and of a time and a place, of love, and of women’s rights and a changing world. But mostly, it’s Clara’s story.

This was a beautiful book. The art and music bleed through the pages:

The sparrows of Irving Place were preening too, and gossiping pianissimo, and hopping about with an air of importance. Distant medleys of the city blended into a pleasant humming, punctuated at intervals by the Third Avenue elevated rumbling in a crescendo, grinding its brakes shrilly for the Eighteenth Street station, expelling its pfft of steam, then starting up again and fading away in a diminuendo.

I liked the historical aspects, too. As I like my hist-fict authors to do, Vreeland includes a note at the closing to explain where she took liberties. It does seem fairly clear that Clara Driscoll created many or nearly all of the leaded-glass lamps Tiffany got credit for; she did have two marriages; and a number of the figures in the novel did at least exist, with a few verifiable details. But much of the novel is purely fiction.

This was a really beautiful book, enjoyable to read, with a comforting, quiet rhythm and characters I cared about. It was a joy, and I recommend it.

12 Responses

  1. I completely fell in love with audiobooks because of Susan Vreeland’s The Passion of Artemisia. I’ve been looking for more from Vreeland, and I’ve heard lovely things about this one. The selection you shared are simply beautiful.

  2. This was my first from her, but clearly I’m impressed! I’ve heard a lot about Girl in Hyacinth Blue.

  3. […] on my TBR shelves, I picked it up because I had such a groove going, after Annie Londonderry and Clara and Mr. Tiffany, two books set in the same era with overlapping locations – Annie in New York, Boston, and […]

  4. […] Clara and Mr. Tiffany, Susan Vreeland. Fiction. […]

  5. […] Clara and Mr. Tiffany, Susan Vreeland. Fiction. […]

  6. […] enjoyed Vreeland’s Clara and Mr. Tiffany so much that I was happy to find this audiobook at my local public library. So far it’s […]

  7. […] reminded time and time again of another lovely work of historical fiction, Susan Vreeland’s Clara and Mr. Tiffany. These books are both about women who really lived but are marginalized in history, allowing two […]

  8. […] come!), helped along by my admiration for Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue and especially her Clara and Mr. Tiffany. In other words, I have high expectations; and the opening lines reinforce […]

  9. […] What a lovely book. I recently read and enjoyed Scott Elliot’s Temple Grove enough that I attended to his “Note on Sources,” and requested several from my local library. This was one of those – aided by my enjoyment of Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue and Clara and Mr. Tiffany. […]

  10. […] Or (to digress), I suspect that Susan Vreeland gets accurately inside the head of an artist, in her Clara and Mr. Tiffany or The Forest Lover, both of which I loved. However, not being much of an artist, I can’t […]

  11. […] The general feeling is indeed one of the appreciation of beauty, joy, and living in the moment, which (at least as portrayed here) are pillars of Renoir’s own worldview. I enjoyed being immersed in such appreciations, and in the love of lines, colors, light, and brushwork. I genuinely liked almost every character we met, and it felt like escaping into something lovely to rejoin this audiobook. (As I’m saying about everything I read and take in these days, I can’t separate the experience of this book from the pandemic. This one took me longer than usual because I usually listen to audiobooks in the gym and while driving, and midway through this book I lost access to the gym and had nowhere to go. It was a delicious escape, though, when I did get into it.) There was also an elegiac tone to things, especially late, and especially in the character of Alphonsine, who closes things out for us. She’s a somewhat tragic figure who I would happily spend more time with. In fact, I loved the women of this story most of all. I think Vreeland does women beautifully, especially in my favorites of hers, The Forest Lover and Clara and Mr. Tiffany. […]

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