"His paintings don't tell stories...": Historical Romance and Vermeer
Lisa Fletcher, University of Tasmania
The most well-known re-imagining of Johannes Vermeer's (1632-1675) art and life is Tracy Chevalier's 1999 bestseller Girl with a Pearl Earring; however seven novels published since 1998 use Vermeer as their "launch-pad" (Bailey 243). Three of these novels are set in seventeenth-century Holland: Girl with a Pearl Earring, Gregory Maguire's Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (1999), and Deborah Moggach's Tulip Fever (1999). Susan Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue (1999) traces the provenance of a fictional Vermeer painting from late-twentieth-century America to the artist's studio. In addition, three strangely similar novels tell of women in the present whose lives are altered by their attraction to a painting by Vermeer: Katherine Weber's The Music Lesson (1998), John Bayley's The Red Hat (1998), and Barbara Shoup's Faithful Women (1999). Other examples of what Moggach calls "this kind of Vermeer kick" (quoted in Schumacher) include Peter Greenaway's opera, Writing About Vermeer, first performed in Amsterdam in 1999, Shoup's young adult historical novel, Vermeer's Daughter, and Blue Balliett's 2004 novel for 9-12 year olds, Chasing Vermeer (marketed as "The Da Vinci Code for kids"1). Mary Louise Schumacher goes so far as to describe the recent trend as "Vermeer mania," but points out that the current fascination with Vermeer in literature is not without precedent. She identifies Henry James's reference to Vermeer in The Outcry as its probable first instance in American fiction and points also to the role The Little Street, ca.1657-1658, plays in Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.
Girl with a Pearl Earring, Tulip Fever, and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister interpret Vermeer's paintings as moments of suspended narrative.2 All of these texts animate the figures in Vermeer's paintings as characters in remarkably similar tales of "restrained" sexuality. They are, as I argue in Part 1, best classified as historical romance fictions. Part 2 focuses on Girl with a Pearl Earring and its treatment of the relationship between history and romance. My argument is that this novel works with two distinct models of historical narrative, one synchronic and the other diachronic. While it is beyond the scope of this essay to offer detailed close readings of Tulip Fever, and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, my conclusion suggests the relevance of my approach to Girl with a Pearl Earring to these less well-known novels. There are crucial similarities in their treatment of history and their representation of gender and heterosexuality. 3
1. Looking to the Past: Historical Romance and Vermeer
In 2001, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and The National Gallery in London held an exhibition, Vermeer and the Delft School, featuring 15 of Johannes Vermeer's 35 known paintings, together with paintings, drawings, and decorative arts by his contemporaries.4 In a review of the exhibition in New York, Jim Dwyer writes that some visitors were led by tour guides, others listened to "rented audio guides," while "[s]till others [were] led by an invisible, inaudible and totally imaginary guide: Griet, the 17th-century Dutch teenager who narrates Girl with a Pearl Earring, the best-selling novel by Tracy Chevalier that is based on a painting that as it happens, is not even in the show." Dwyer points out that the exhibition at the Met attracted almost twice the number of visitors than the Vermeer exhibition held at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1996. For Walter Liedtke, the gallery's curator of European paintings, the success of Vermeer and the Delft School was due, at least in part, to Chevalier's novel: "I have had the experience many times of people saying they've been reading Girl with a Pearl Earring ... The Met is kind of fortunate it occurred at the same time."
Dwyer's review includes brief interviews with visitors to the museum who say that reading Chevalier's novel gave them greater access to the paintings' meanings: "After you read the book, you see the paintings with a truer eye;" "I counted six paintings with pearl earrings ... What the book does is open up the speculation about the subjects of the painting;" "The book brought alive the moment being 'recollected in tranquillity,' just as Vermeer does;" "if a piece of literature ties modern readers to this great painter, it is absolutely worthwhile." One of the museum goers, David Pecaut, standing before A Woman Asleep (c. 1657), says: "The book raised the underpinning of sexuality -- restrained, understated -- and it brings up questions when you look at these pictures. Why is she sleeping at a table? Is she drunk? If she is a maid, why is she so dressed up?" These are exactly the kinds of questions Chevalier has said drove her to write Girl with a Pearl Earring: "There is so much mystery in each painting, in the women he depicts, so many stories suggested but not told. I wanted to tell one of them."5 The impact of Chevalier's novel on the Vermeer exhibition at the Met raises questions about the relationship between history and fiction which are important to any study of historical fiction: What role does literature play in readers' understanding of the past? How can critics explain the enduring appeal of historical fiction? What does it mean to look to the past in order to write fiction? How do contemporary historical novels negotiate the relationship between fact and fiction?
The broad assumption which underpins my discussion is that historical novels intervene in our view of the past. The notion that a fictional character can perform the role of tour guide at the Met makes this point quite nicely. In these terms, the function of historical novels is to "open up" the past to contemporary readers, to facilitate the imaginative work which makes the past come "alive." Girl with a Pearl Earring is best classified as "historical romance." The link between the apparently contradictory functions of history and romance (to tell the truth/to offer fantasy) comes into focus in Dwyer's review of Vermeer and the Delft School. The visitors to the exhibition feel better equipped to respond to the paintings, as aesthetic and historical artefacts, because they have read a romance set in the period; the imaginative function of romance enables the instructive work of history.6
Recent scholarship has noted significant changes in the structure and style of historical novels. The first chapter of Jago Morrison's Contemporary Fiction, "History and Post-Histories," argues that a broader "crisis in historical representation" (15) manifests in contemporary fiction in two ways. Firstly, it appears as scepticism of "grand narratives" of history and the "proliferation of local and regional historical narratives in their place." Secondly, contemporary writers recognise that the impact of globalisation makes "the idea of self-contained, nationally and ethnically defined historical consciousness somehow outdated and inadequate" (14). Morrison argues that traditional conceptions of history which grant novelists the "imperious authority attributed to nineteenth-century novelists" are not "sustainable." Instead, he argues that "one of the characteristics of much contemporary writing is the way in which writers self-consciously acknowledge their lack of mastery of the historical, and of their own practices of narration" (14). Morrison uses the term "post-historical novel" to classify novels "about" history, novels "written against history's grain" (16). Over the last two decades, a number of critics have argued that a new classificatory term is necessary to signal the difference between traditional historical novels and recent manifestations of the genre.
In 1988, Linda Hutcheon famously coined the somewhat unwieldy "historiographical metafiction" in A Poetics of Postmodernism to group together novels which reflect on their treatment of history and the narrativisation of history in general, at the same time as they sustain a belief in the validity and value of historical narratives. For Hutcheon, this paradox marks the postmodernism of the genre. Brian McHale, writing around the same time as Hutcheon, defined the "postmodern revisionist historical novel" as a text which both "revises the content of the historical record" and re-evaluates and "transforms" the "conventions and norms of historical fiction itself" (90). More recently, Diane Elam and Catherine Belsey have used the term "postmodern romance" to pose similar arguments to Hutcheon and McHale about the paradoxical nature of recent historical novels and the challenge they throw up to traditional ideas about the relationship between the past and the present. In a similar vein, Amy J. Elias proposes the term "postmodernist metahistorical romance," to name novels which "[reverse] the dominant focus of the classical historical romance genre from history to romance" (Sublime Desire xi) and reject "models of historical linearity" in favour of "spatializing models of history"(xii). In addition, Del Ivan Janik and Martha Tuck Rozett both write about "new historical fiction." Certainly, the claims these critics make about developments in literary uses of history resonate with the novels I discuss in this essay; however, my feeling is that this proliferation of terms hinders rather than helps new attempts to map the field of contemporary literary production. My preference is to use the more elastic and simpler term "historical romance fiction;" this classification already encapsulates the tensions and complexities the neologisms cited above have tried to name. Perhaps more importantly though, it does not suggest that recent novels enact a radical break from the genre's traditions, but implies instead that the continuities in the genre are as significant (if not more so) as the changes.
In Romancing the Postmodern, Diane Elam writes that "the founding trope of historical romance is anachronism" (35). From the outset, two apparently oppositional discourses lock horns in historical romance: "history" in its promise to tell the truth about the past, and "romance" in its endeavours to offer a fantasy of an elsewhere. A whole series of complex binary oppositions lie, as on a palimpsest, beneath the term "historical romance": fact/fiction, truth/lies, real/false, past/present, here/there, linear/spatial, universal/contingent, mind/body, masculine/feminine and so on. One of the pleasures and challenges of studying this genre is tracing the connections between these troublesome pairs.
Anthony Bailey's recent book, A View of Delft: Vermeer Then and Now, includes a brief discussion of the literary "mini-tradition" (Schumacher). Bailey is principally interested in Proust's fascination with Vermeer, but his thumbnail explanation of the popularity of the artist with contemporary novelists -- "We prefer then to now" (245) -- neatly encapsulates the dual functions of representations of history in these novels; the world they depict is both a picture of a distant and irrecoverable past and a fantasy of an elsewhere that contemporary readers are able to imaginatively inhabit. Girl with a Pearl Earring, Tulip Fever, and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister work with two seemingly contradictory definitions of history. On the one hand, they conceive of the past as ultimately unknowable; traditional historical research gives us only an incomplete and partial record of a world radically different from our own. This is a linear model of history which emphasises the centuries which separate the distant past and the present. On the other hand, the novels employ claims for the "timelessness" of Vermeer's art to imagine the past as a world within reach of our own; the figures in Vermeer's paintings are animated by emotions and desires which we can recognise. This is a spatial model of history which insists on the proximity of the past and the present; entering the past is just a matter of crossing an imaginary threshold or looking through a frame. In short, the novels maintain diachronic and synchronic models of history simultaneously; the past is both distant from and coexistent with the present. This is made explicit in the prologue to Gregory Maguire's Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, when the narrator remarks: "There are one or two windows into those far-off days. You have seen them -- the windows of canvas that painters work on so we can look through" (xii). As I will show, Girl with a Pearl Earring, seeks to reconcile these two theories of history by considering gender norms as a function of linear history while insisting on the timelessness of heterosexuality. An implicit narrative of historical progress suggests women in the past were "imprisoned in [their] lives" (Maguire 174) to a degree which horrifies contemporary readers; gender norms change over time. At the same time, the representation of sexual desire as something unbidden and instinctive suggests that human sexual needs and desires are not subject to historical change; homo/heterosexual definition is not historicised.
In his essay, "Here's Not Looking at You, Kid: Some Literary Uses of Vermeer," Gary Schwartz describes a literary and scholarly tradition of Vermeer appreciation, which places the paintings' production and reception outside of the realm of history. Schwartz is an art historian with a research interest in seventeenth-century Dutch painting and this perspective motivates his fairly damning critique of five of the Vermeer novels and Greenaway's opera. Schwartz's claim is that all of these texts make "egregious mistakes" (104); they have "shallow knowledge" of the period and its art, which "leads them to distort entire realms of Dutch life" (105). Importantly, Schwartz makes it clear that the historical errors he identifies are not peculiar to this run of novels, but rather are symptomatic of a wider and long-established misunderstanding of Vermeer.
Since the early twentieth-century, art historians have lauded Vermeer's paintings both as timeless and as true renderings of the artist's world. Critics persistently describe Vermeer as ardently historical at the same time as they insist he throws off the constraints of history.7 This contradiction also explains, in part, the striking similarities between the recent Vermeer novels. Art historians and novelists seem to share the view that Vermeer's paintings create an inhabitable imaginary world for today's viewers-they depict spaces we can picture ourselves entering and people with whom we feel we could converse. As the examples offered in Part 2 of this essay show, art historians consistently write of Vermeer as though the picture plane collapses the distance between Vermeer's studio and the dispersed and irreducible viewing spaces of the present to an almost permeable membrane. The prevalence of this approach to his work enables the romantic re-imagining of the past which characterises Vermeer fiction.
My discussion of Girl with a Pearl Earring begins to answer these questions by paying attention to those moments in the novel which reflect on the complex dynamics of looking-at paintings, people, and objects. In this novel, the relationship between the "spectatorial" and "bodily" realms (between sight and touch) is used to reflect on the process of "looking back" to the past to produce fiction. A similar argument could be posed in response to Tulip Fever and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. All three of the novels are extended meditations on the relationship between sight and subjectivity. My problem with them is the degree to which their explorations of the dynamics of looking are circumscribed by normative assumptions about bodies and desire. These novels insist, again and again, that whereas the masculine/feminine binary is a function of social-historical context (history puts limits on agency), homo/heterosexual definition is a historical constant (desire is not managed by history). The following close reading of Girl with a Pearl Earring develops this argument in greater detail and suggests, I hope, further avenues for research.
2. The Use of History in Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring
In her book, The Character of Truth, Naomi Jacobs contends that the appearance of historical figures as characters in late-twentieth-century fiction is a symptom of the demise of the "hegemony of realism" (xiv) and a concomitant destabilisation of the status of official histories: "There is a new cast of characters in fiction these days" (xiii). For Jacobs, novelists as diverse as E.L. Doctorow, Ishmael Reed, Philip José Farmer and Kathy Acker have been influenced by theories of "history, character, and language that question the existence and even the desirability of factual truth, unified identity, and aesthetic perfection" (xiv). This theoretical turn in contemporary literature accounts for an apparent disinterest in both standards of historical accuracy and the maintenance of the disciplinary divide between history and literature.8 Jacobs remarks that while the novels she examines might have the "flavour of a roman à clef," they "lack both keys and locks" (xvi). The frequent appearance of historical characters in contemporary fiction communicates a "new sense of the plasticity of historical figures" which, in turn, follows from the perception that history is no less a construction than fiction (xvi). Certainly, casting Johannes Vermeer as a man at once entranced and profoundly unsettled by the girl who dusts his shelves suggests a view that historical figures are not locked into stories which can be verified by archival research. This novel has little interest in maintaining standards of "factual truth"; in this sense history is an "open work" (Elias "Defining Spatial History" 108). However, Chevalier's approach to history does not open notions of "unified identity, and aesthetic perfection" to interrogation. To the contrary, it functions to reinforce them; the unity of the self and beauty are treated as standards which transcend history. In this sense, treating history as an "open work" upholds rather than questions hegemonic notions of "reality."
Art historians have speculated that one of Vermeer's daughters may have been the model for Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1665-1666). Instead, Chevalier imagines her as an outsider in the artist's household: a 16-year-old girl, Griet, who leaves her family home to work for Vermeer. Initially employed as a maid and to clean his studio, she later becomes his assistant and his model. From the novel's opening pages, it is clear that Griet shares the painter's acute visual sensitivity to her surroundings. Griet is the only character in Vermeer's household not based, even if just in name, on historical accounts of his life. As part of her preparation for writing the novel Chevalier read John Michael Montias's Vermeer and his Milieu: A Web of Social History (249):
In spite of all my efforts and of those who preceded me in combing through Delft's archives, less documentary evidence has survived regarding Vermeer himself than regarding his grandparents, his uncles and aunts, and especially his in-laws: Maria Thins, the formidable mother of his wife Catharina, and Catharina's irascible brother Willem. Vermeer seems to have been exclusively devoted to his art There is little to go on to reconstruct his personality, beyond his ability to get along with a very domineering and contentious mother-in-law. (xv)
Clearly one of the attractions of Vermeer for fiction writers is that biographers and art historians have managed to unearth so little about his life and frequently disagree about how to interpret what they have found. For instance, whereas Montias suggests that Pieter Claesz van Ruijven, a wealthy Delft burgher, was "just about Vermeer's sole buyer" (Broos 47), as he is in the novel, others argue that the existing evidence suggests he had a wider market. Chevalier uses the "web" of characters Montias identifies as the base for her novel, but the lack of broader agreement about the connections between these historical figures allows her to pick and chose which figures should feature in her tale and, more importantly, to weave in entirely imagined characters.
As I noted above, following Jacobs, Chevalier's approach to historical fiction in this novel does seem to support an argument that she shakes up the facts in order to show the "plasticity" of history. From this perspective, Maria Thins remark, towards the end of the novel, that Griet caused "[t]he most trouble we've ever had with a maid" (242) is a metafictional reference to the liberties the book takes with history. However, the novel's portrayal of Vermeer also suggests a view less destabilising of traditional notions of history than Jacobs's work anticipates. While Chevalier's play with historical records is sanctioned by a widely-shared idea of history as unknowable (or at least incomplete) at the level of facts, it advocates at the same time an idea of history as knowable at the level of "universal" truths. These two views of history are tied to the novel's use of Vermeer's painting, described by Chevalier as "a universal picture of young woman-hood" (Chevalier, Interview).
Chevalier has owned a poster of the painting since she was nineteen years old, but first saw the actual painting at the exhibition, Johannes Vermeer, at the Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis, The Hague in 1996 (Schumacher). In the exhibition catalogue, a text which Chevalier knows very well9, Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., describes the painting in this way:
As this young girl stares out at the viewer with liquid eyes and parted mouth, she radiates purity, captivating all that gaze upon her. Her soft, smooth skin is as unblemished as the surface of her large, teardrop-shaped pearl earring. Like a vision emanating from the darkness, she belongs to no specific time or place. Her exotic turban, wrapping her head in crystalline blue, is surmounted by a striking yellow fabric that falls dramatically behind her shoulder, lending an air of mystery to the image. (166)
In the novel, Griet never has an opportunity to look closely at the finished painting; it is only described once.
The painting was like none of his others. It was just of me, of my head and shoulders, with no tables or curtains, no windows or powderbrushes to soften and distract. He had painted me with my eyes wide, the light falling across my face but the left side of me in shadow. I was wearing blue and yellow and brown. The cloth wound around my head made me look not like myself, but like Griet from another town, even from another country altogether. The background was black, making me appear very much alone, although I was clearly looking at someone. I seemed to be waiting for something I did not think would ever happen. (202-203)
This passage echoes the exhibition catalogue in some significant ways: the girl is radically alone, but her wide-eyed gaze and "liquid eyes" invoke an audience; despite her "exotic turban" she "belongs to no specific time and place"; the girl's image appears like a moment in a narrative of "mystery" or "waiting." In both descriptions, the painting's impact follows from the power of the girl's gaze and its historical non-specificity. In these terms, this painting achieves the temporal collapse which makes the imaginative work of historical fiction possible.
In Chevalier's description the girl is "clearly looking at someone;" the anonymity of "someone" brings together, however fleetingly, the multiple and historically dispersed viewers of this painting. Within the imagined world on the other side of the frame, she looks at the artist, but she also looks out of the frame. Edward Snow reads the portrait in a similar way to Chevalier and Wheelock, but makes explicit the link between the young girl's gaze and contemporary viewers: "For to meet this young girl's gaze is to be implicated in its urgency.... It is me at whom she gazes, with real, unguarded human emotions, and with an intensity that demands something just as real and human in return" (3). In all three of these readings of the painting, Chevalier's novel and the art historians' analyses (Wheelock, Snow), the central drama of the painting (and the viewer's relationship to it) is a romantic one; it pivots on the figure of an unknown woman from the past and the question of desire she encapsulates for contemporary viewers.
The only description of the painting in the novel interprets it as a portrayal of the girl's longing: "I seemed to be waiting for something that I did not think would ever happen" (203). For Snow, the painting is a complex picture of "yearning" (3). For Bryan Jay Wolf, after looking closely at this painting, "[w]hat remains for those, like the painter, on the other side of the picture plane is longing" (139). What is the relationship between these two modalities of desire: that inferred from the wide-eyed gaze of an unknown girl and the viewer's desire to imaginatively intercept that gaze, to discover its object? My argument is that the complex possibilities of Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring are cathected into a narrow channel by the novel's reading of the painting as a moment in a tale of heterosexual desire.
As I have already explained, historical romance fiction is organised by a whole series of complex binary oppositions. However, the binary which causes the most trouble and therefore demands the most urgent attention is homosexual/heterosexual. Whereas feminist scholarship of the last few decades has demonstrated the ways in which the gender binary, masculine/feminine, is tied to the other hierarchical oppositions which structure popular genres, there is less guidance for critics who wish to read texts from a feminist and anti-homophobic standpoint. In the first paragraph of Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argues that many of the major tenets of "thought and knowledge" in contemporary Western culture are structured-and fractured-by a "chronic, now endemic crisis of homo/heterosexual definition" (1). For Sedgwick, this crisis is as important to successful analysis of Western cultural production as the masculine/feminine binary. She insists that an examination of "virtually any aspect of Western culture" is fundamentally flawed to the extent that it ignores homo/heterosexual definition. In these terms, the lack of detailed studies of the representation of sexuality in historical fiction is a serious oversight. One of the aims of my analysis of Girl with a Pearl Earring is to begin to interrogate the function of the homo/heterosexual binary in historical romance.
In his book, Vermeer and the Invention of Seeing, Bryan Jay Wolf describes Girl with a Pearl Earring, as "one of Vermeer's most haunting paintings" (136). For Wolf, this painting "condenses into a single figure, with a minimum of detail, the issue of seeing" (137). He identifies two registers within Vermeer's painting: the bodily (or "tactile") and the spectatorial. The force of Girl with a Pearl Earring, for Wolf, follows from the painting's distinction between these two realms: "she summarizes for us, as for Vermeer, the split between seeing and doing that defines, even as it genders, the dilemmas of perception in the early modern period" (139). The "key" to understanding this split (and thus the painting) "lies in the turn of the woman's head" (138). He explains that this turn captures the strain between the "generalized world of the body-parallel to the picture plane-and the spectatorial arena of the head set in contrapuntal relation to the body" (138). Wolf describes the painting's "lateral plane" as an embodiment of a "tactile-erotic narrative" (139). The relationship between these "lateral" and "perpendicular" picture planes is fundamental to Chevalier's project in Girl with a Pearl Earring. In the terms of the novel, the lateral plane corresponds to a linear model of history; the logic of this plane permits Chevalier's play with the facts because it is ultimately unknowable. We can only imagine the "tactile-erotic narrative" which transforms this girl into a character. The perpendicular, or spectatorial, plane enables this imaginative work; it corresponds to a spatial model of history according to which the relationship between this girl's gaze and "all that gaze upon her" (Wheelock 166) is an immediate one, characterised in Snow's terms, by "urgency" and immediacy. As I commented above, the bodily and spectatorial planes are best distinguished as diachronic and synchronic registers. The novel insists on the distinction between the bodily and the spectatorial, through the characterisation of Griet and, in particular, her gradual awareness that while others have claims on her body, she retains ownership of her gaze. Indeed, one of the chief ways in which the novel seeks to engage readers' sympathies for Griet is through this contradiction; she may have limited control over her physical destiny, but-the novel insists-at least her "wide eyes" are her own.
There are frequent references in Chevalier's novel to Griet's "wide eyes"; they symbolise the strength (and the peculiarity) of her gaze. Griet's eyes are the key to her active internal life: "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" (3; see also 62, 162, 178). At the same time, though, Griet's "wide eyes" draw the (usually unwelcome) gaze of others. This is most apparent in the depiction of Vermeer's patron, van Ruijven, whose lecherous advances to Griet are used as a counterpoint for Vermeer's attraction to her: "Where's that wide-eyed maid? Gone already? I wanted to have a proper look at her?" (77). The problem of Griet's too-direct gaze is foreshadowed early in the novel when she has an altercation with a boatman on the canal and learns that to return a man's gaze is to signal sexual availability. When Griet first leaves her parent's home, she is aware of herself as the object of a multiplied gaze-"watched curiously" (11) as she walks along the street. A boatman calls out to her: "I merely nodded and lowered my head so that the edge of the cap hid my face" (12). Later in the day, the same man helps her to retrieve a pot that has fallen in the canal: "Oh, you're looking at me now that you want something from me, are you? There's a change!" He tries to kiss her and she "[wrestles] the pot from him" (24). As Griet walks back towards the house, Griet thinks she sees "movement" in the window of Vermeer's studio: "I stared but could see nothing except the reflected sky" (24) This episode forecasts the difficulties Griet will have avoiding being looked at by men. It signals also that the novel's principle drama-Griet's crisis-will be about how she can manage the conflict between the spectatorial and the bodily realms.
It is important to note that, while this novel insists on a distinction between the bodily and spectatorial planes, their relationship is asymptotic; looking comes very close to touching at numerous points in the novel, so close that they almost seem to be the same thing. On one level, Chevalier uses "seeing" as a metaphor for understanding. In this novel the verb "to see" and its synonyms (to look, to gaze, to watch, to glance) have a multitude of meanings and nuances beyond their standard dictionary definition. This is borne out by the inclusion of a blind character that can still "see" images in his mind (50), but is unable to appreciate their emotional impact. Griet's father, once a painter of blue-and-white Delftware, lost his sight when a kiln exploded. Griet tries to explain Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (c. 1664-1665) for him, but cannot make him "understand" (96). He is confused when she tells him her master's "paintings don't tell stories": "I wanted to tell him that if he could only see the painting he would understand that there was nothing confusing about it, but it was still a painting you could not stop looking at" (97). However, Griet's father is not the only character who does not understand. This novel ranks characters according to their capacity to look at things carefully. For instance, unlike Griet, Vermeer's wife has an unsteady, impatient gaze, "her eyes darting about the room" (4). A great deal of symbolic importance is attached to eyes. Griet sees emotions in other characters' eyes: "kindness" (67, 71), "expectation (71), "pity (140), and "regret" (228). To look at another person is not classified as a simple or innocent thing in this novel. To direct one's gaze at another can signify curiosity, concern, censorship, love, or lust. Griet feels profoundly uncomfortable being looked at by others, especially Vermeer. She "feels" (19, 86, 88, 122, 163) eyes on her at a number of points and has physical responses to the gazes of others; she blushes (42, 105), becomes dizzy (86), and feels hot (190, 191) when other characters look at her. However, as the depiction of Griet and Vermeer's relationship makes clear, while this novel compares the experience of being looked at with the sensation of being touched, it does not conflate them.
In the novel's opening scene, Vermeer is intrigued by Griet's careful arrangement of the vegetables she is chopping for soup: "'I see you have separated the whites.... And then the orange and the purple, they do not sit together. Why is that?'" (5). Her response surprises him, "The colours fight when they are side by side, sir" (5). From the outset, it is clear that Griet and Vermeer share a heightened aesthetic sense, and an appreciation of colour and composition. Vermeer encourages Griet to think in more complex ways about her response to the visual world: he shows her a camera obscura, teaches her about colour and light, and gradually allows her greater access to his studio, a space kept quarantined from the bustle of his family life. The problem for both characters is the lack of a vocabulary with which to describe this aspect of their relationship; Griet can never be an artist. The powerful exchange of gazes between Griet and the master painter does not belong in the quotidian, fleshly world of a working girl in seventeenth-century Holland; theirs is, in many ways, a love ahead of its time.
Her almost-apprenticeship to Vermeer is a clandestine arrangement and there is never any suggestion she might become a painter herself. History limits her choices; Griet can only be a wife, maid or fallen woman. 10 The novel illustrates these options through: descriptions of minor characters (Griet's mother, Tanneke (the Vermeer's maid)); references to the model for Vermeer's The Girl with the Wineglass (c. 1659-1660); and Griet's reactions to Dirck van Baburen's The Procuress (1622).
The novel presents seventeenth-century Delft as a time and place when girls and women did not own their bodies, but were the possessions first of their parents, then of their employers, and finally of their husbands. As the novel progresses, Griet becomes increasingly aware that she is "for sale"; she is an object of financial exchange. In the end this awareness overshadows any desire she has for intimacy with Vermeer and she accepts the butcher's son's marriage proposal. This point is made most powerfully through the references to van Baburen's, The Procuress, owned by Vermeer's mother-in-law, Maria Thins, and included in a number of his own paintings (Wheelock 37-38, 200).
To some extent, Maria Thins herself plays the role of "procuress" in relation to Griet. She organises the commission of a portrait of Griet for Vermeer's lecherous patron, van Ruijven, as a compromise when Vermeer refuses to paint them together. My focus is on the three references to van Baburen's The Procuress.11 Griet first looks at the painting when she realises that Vermeer has made a bargain with van Ruijven and is going to paint her: "The man was buying the young woman's favours, the old woman reaching to take the coin he held out. Maria Thins owned the painting and had told me it was called The Procuress" (179). It is significant that the young woman in this painting does not look out from the canvas, but is locked in a close and intimate exchange of looks with the man in the painting. The Procuress foregrounds its "tactile-erotic narrative," it seems much more about doing than seeing. Griet looks at the painting again when Vermeer asks her to remove her cap. Griet refuses to be painted with her head bare: "I did not know what to do.... My eyes fell on the painting of The Procuress -- the young woman's head was bare, her hair held back with ribbons, but the old woman wore a piece of cloth wrapped around her head, crisscrossing in and out of itself. Perhaps that is what women who are neither ladies nor maids nor the other do with their hair" (193). As the novel progresses it becomes clear that Griet's body is the object of a series of related exchanges: between her father and Vermeer, between Vermeer and van Ruijven, between both men and Maria Thins, between Vermeer and the butcher's son, between her parents and the butcher's son.12
The final time Griet looks at the painting reinforces the sense that her primary struggle is with the distinction between her capacity to share the vision of a master painter and her incapacity to act on that potential. Vermeer is uncertain how to finish the painting, until he sees the light glinting from his wife's pearl earring. Griet too knows "immediately that [her portrait] needed the pearl earring" (206), but recognises the earring's significance as a symbol of value. To agree to wear Vermeer's wife's jewellery both risks the inference that she has usurped Catharina's position and marks her as an object to be painted, displayed and exchanged between men. Perhaps the most extraordinary and disturbing episode in the novel is the piercing of Griet's ear. Vermeer insists that Griet must wear the earrings; it is not enough for him to imagine her wearing them. Maria Thins (again in the role of "procuress") takes the earrings from her daughter's jewellery box and gives them to Griet. When she "drop[s] the earrings into [Vermeer's] palm," Griet looks at The Procuress: "The man was smiling at the young woman as if he were squeezing pears in the market to see if they were ripe. I shivered" (218). Griet's ear are not pierced. She uses clove oil and a needle to pierce her left earlobe. Vermeer inserts the earring: "He rubbed the swollen lobe between his thumb and finger, then pulled it taut. With his other hand he inserted the earring wire in the hole and pushed it through. A pain like fire jolted through me and brought tears to my eyes" (221). But the artist insists he cannot complete the painting if Griet does not wear both earrings; she pierces the other ear and models for the last time: "I sat all morning and he painted the earring he could see, and I felt, stinging like fire in my other ear, the pearl he could not see" (222).
The piercing of Griet's ears strikes me as a dramatic illustration of the struggle between the bodily and spectatorial planes. The cruelty of this episode marks the impossibility of a legitimate bodily relationship for the maid and her master; they are destined to play the roles allocated them by "history". At the same time, the eroticism of Vermeer's penetration of Griet's "swollen lobe" communicates a passion which exceeds such limits. Griet's instinctive understanding of why the painting needs the earring ("All I could really see now was the great hole where the earring should go, which I would have to fill" (213)) is so entangled with her intense attraction to Vermeer that the two feelings are mutually defining. According to the logic of this historical romance, whereas the possibilities of the bodily narrative are constrained by history, the story of desire and restraint the painting tells (a story about looking) is timeless.
As I pointed out in my introduction, Girl with a Pearl Earring is one of eight novels published since 1998 that take their inspiration from the life and work of Vermeer. Two other historical romances, Gregory Maguire's Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister and Deborah Moggach's Tulip Fever, are more loosely based on historical accounts of Vermeer's life and seventeenth-century Dutch life and culture. Nevertheless the structural and thematic similarities between these three novels are striking. The artist in Tulip Fever, Jan van Loos, is a composite figure, bringing together Vermeer, Nicolaes Maes, and Pieter de Hooch. He is commissioned by a wealthy merchant, Cornelis, to paint a portrait of the old man with his young, beautiful wife, Sophia. Sophia, like Griet is profoundly aware of the extent to which her choices are limited by her gender; for instance, she thinks of her marriage as a "transaction" (14). References to an unidentified version of Susannah and the Elders in this novel, function in the same way as Griet's responses to The Procuress. Sophia's husband owns the painting and her discomfort before the "greedy eyes" (3) of the "old men" who "peer at the naked girl as she bathes" signals her recognition that she is an object of exchange, part of her husband's collection in the same way the painting is. The intense gaze of Jan van Loos, however, effects her in a different way; modelling for the painter frees her to imagine a life away from the restricting norms and conventions of her time.
One of the effects of these novels is the granting of the frisson of illegitimacy and secrecy to heterosexuality. There is no reference to love between men or to love between women in Girl with a Pearl Earring or Tulip Fever. In Confessions the novel's villain, Margarethe, initiates a rumour that two characters (the master painter and his apprentice, Caspar) have a sexual relationship; homosexuality is raised as a possibility only to be made the stuff of lies and mean-spirited gossip. In all three of these novels, heterosexual desire holds the promise of resistance to oppressive gender norms. For the young girls at the centre of all three novels, desire for a man shows them the promise of another way to live; heterosexual passion cuts across the strictures of gender difference, class, or religion. It is the one aspect of human experience which, with the terms of these novels, cannot be historicised. This is, of course, something of a cliché (love knows no bounds), nevertheless the similarities in the ways these novels use this cliché to manage the relationship between history and fiction are striking.
Gregory Maguire's Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is a strange and difficult novel. It is both a re-telling of the story of Cinderella and a complex exploration of the meaning of portraiture set in mid-seventeenth-century Haarlem. Maguire's novel is distinctive in the way it brings together the fantastical and the historical. This novel is, I think, the most self-aware of the three about the extent to which its historical aspects depend on a romantic reimagining of the past. While I think all three novels are managed by the demands of romance more than they are by history, this novel uses the Cinderella story to foreground this imbalance. However, for the purposes of my argument, where Confessions differs most markedly from Girl with a Pearl Earring and Tulip Fever, is in allowing the novel's young heroine to become a painter herself.
The main narrative is told in first person from the perspective of one of the ugly stepsister's, Iris, whose beautiful name is a poor label for an unattractive girl (20). Luykas Schoonmaker, a moderately successful painter, paints a portrait of Iris, Girl with Wildflowers, which "says only one thing.... Aren't the flowers beautiful?" (51). Iris "knows that she's not proof of a divine presence in a corrupt world" (45). That role is left to Clara, the daughter of the wealthy tulip trader their mother marries: Cinderella. Clara is "not quite fit for the world" (90); she is a spectral figure or trace. She believes herself a changeling, "a replacement creature left behind by the thwarties when they stole the real Clara baby away" (87). The portrait Schoonmaker paints of Clara, Girl with Tulips, is a direct contrast to Iris's portrait; it is a masterpiece. Clara is always already a visual re-presentation; despite her efforts to join the other girls in the kitchen, she is never tethered to the everyday world in the way that Iris and Ruth are. This novel is self-conscious about the necessary anachronism of historical romance. The struggle between history and romance which characterises all three novels is exemplified by the difference between Iris and Clara. This is clearest in the contrast of Iris's struggles to find her place in the drama of everyday life with Clara's strange dual occupation of the quotidian and imaginary worlds, the bodily and the spectatorial. This novel thus divides the work of Griet and Sophia into two characters, thus inviting more complex and detailed reflection on the relationship between the bodily and spectatorial planes in the literary use of history.
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2 Sections of this paper develop ideas touched on in my text guide to Chevalier's novel for Australian secondary school students, published by Insight Publications in 2001.
3 The terms of my argument would also be pertinent to an analysis of the novels with contemporary settings and of the 2003 film adaptation of Girl with a Pearl Earring. As further evidence of the recent resurgence of interest in Vermeer, Schumacher cites: Peter Greenaway's "visual quotations" of Vermeer paintings in a Zed and Two Naughts and The Draughtsman's Contract, Zbiegniew Herbert's fictional letter from Vermeer in his collection of essays Still Life with a Bridle, Susanna Kaysen's memoir, Girl, Interrupted and its film adaptation. In addition, Marta Morazzoni's short story, "Girl in a Turban," first published in Italian in 1986, is an early example of Vermeer-inspired historical fiction. While analysis of all of these texts falls outside the ambit of my discussion, there is certainly space for further cross-disciplinary work that interrogates the use of Vermeer by contemporary writers and, to a lesser extent, filmmakers.
4 Only 34 paintings are in circulation. The 35th, The Concert, was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. See Wolf (247) for a summary of other "kidnappings".
5 http://www.tchevalier.com/gwape/inspiration/index.html. 22 Dec 2004.
6 For an explanation of the imaginative functions of romance see Beer.
7 See Schwartz for a summary of the habits of thinking which have dominated Vermeer studies over the last century
8 For an extended discussion of the impact of this disciplinary divide on the study of historical fiction, see Rehberger.
10 This point is also made in a number of other ways: through the stories of Griet's brother, Frans; by references to the family's other maid, Tanneke; and in the butcher's sons warnings to Griet about the place of a maid. For instance, the eight-pointed star in the centre of Delft's town square, which Griet crosses at the beginning of the novel when she first leaves home and again when she leaves Vermeer's studio for the last time (13, 229), works together with the image of a spinning knife (4, 228) to communicate the violence history has done to the capacity of women to map their own futures. Griet is forced to run from Vermeer's studio when his wife discovers the portrait of Vermeer and threatens to destroy it with a palette knife. Vermeer wrestles it from her: "The knife skidded across the tiles to my feet, then spun and spun, slower and slower, as we all stared at it. It came to a stop with the blade pointed at me" (228).
11 A number of other paintings by Vermeer are featured in the novel. They all play a role, to varying degrees, in Griet's efforts to understand her place in the world: View of Delft (c.1660-1661), Woman with a Pearl Necklace (c. 1664), The Milkmaid (c. 1658-1660), A Lady Writing (c. 1665), The Concert (c. 1665-1666), and Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (c. 1664-1665).
12 This list only would become more complex if I had the space to consider the painting's intertexts and consider the "purchase" of the girl's image more broadly.