“Girl with a Pearl Earring” is a reasonably famous painting by Johannes Vermeer and Tracy Chevalier has used it and a lot of historical research to imagine the circumstances – the people and the place – under which it might have been created. The girl is Griet. Her father, a skilled artisan who used to hand paint tiles, has been blinded in a kiln explosion and is unable to support his family anymore. His son, Frans, is already apprenticed at a tile factory and so Griet is forced to become a servant in the Vermeer household.
The head of the house is Vermeer’s mother-in-law, Maria Thins. Vermeer’s wife, Catharina, is pregnant and the child will be their sixth. There’s also a cook named Tanneke. So it’s a busy and crowded home. Griet is put in charge of the laundry, cleaning Vermeer’s studio, any chores Catharina cannot or will not do as her pregnancy progresses and anything else Tanneke asks of her. She allows herself to be courted by Pieter, the butcher’s son, as she makes her daily trip to the Meat Market and sleeps in the cellar where a “Catholic” painting offends her Protestant sensibilities.
But it is Vermeer and his paintings that consume her. As Griet cleans the floors and windows and around the props in the tableaus he is reproducing, she tries to understand what he is doing. He teaches her about colours and eventually asks her to crush the materials that are combined with oil to become his paints, although it remains a secret from the household – particularly his jealous wife – and she has to find the time to do it as well as all her other chores.
The book is ostensibly a love story, albeit an unconsummated one. Griet and Vermeer bond over his painting and eventually he paints her. He doesn’t really want to but the iconic painting he creates is a compromise. His patron will commission a large and expensive work and not insist that Griet sits for it with him (a seduction technique the patron has used before with maids) if Vermeer will paint Griet on her own so it can become part of the patron’s private collection. But this, too, must be done in secret. So they spend hours in the studio together simply looking at each other, Griet with her face thrown back towards her left shoulder and Vermeer with intense eyes as he tries to capture her essence.
Girl with a Pearl Earring is a subtle book. All the romance is in a glance here and a look there. The greatest eroticism comes when Griet is winding around her head the blue and yellow scarves that appear in the painting and Vermeer sees the hair she has managed to keep covered the entire time she has known him.
It might all be just a little too subtle. Griet is a pious and conservative girl but she often comes across as just plain boring. Her fascination with Vermeer seems to lack passion and though she has no real feelings for Pieter, she allows him to do things to her that a conservative girl really shouldn’t. On these occasions she seems like a different person altogether without any real justification for it.
The writing is restrained and formal, in the way that people writing in English make characters who aren’t English-speakers sound. The plot is thin and not particularly imaginative. The characters are cardboard cutouts – jealous wife, scheming daughter, randy patron, domineering mother-in-law, disappointed parents, demanding boyfriend, chaste maid and brooding artist. And, for some reason, this book managed to get the apostrophe rule wrong more than it got it right, which I found terribly annoying. Once might be an oversight but this book was clearly edited by someone who didn’t know the English language.
But somehow it comes together and gets enough right to be an interesting, if not engrossing, read. Seventeenth-century Delft, where the book is set, comes to life – although this is no doubt helped by the reproduction of “View of Delft” by Johannes Vermeer on the front and back covers of the book. And there’s no doubting that the titular painting has that Mona Lisa quality where her eyes and her mouth tell competing stories.
It’s that kind of novel that thrills literary types who can look past things like a lack of ingenious plot and original characters and simply savour the writing. If you’re looking for more, you won’t find it here. But if you go in knowing what to expect, which is historical fiction and understated romance, you might be satisfied.
*First published on Goodreads 4 June 2016