I just read a fabulous new historical fiction book called “Clara and Mr. Tiffany” by author Susan Vreeland, New York Times bestselling author of Girl in Hyacinth Blue among many more wonderful titles delving into art history. Her most recent novel is a must-read book for anyone interested or even willing to learn about the turn of the century in New York, which was alive with women’s rights and the business of decorative arts. You will learn much more than you ever could imagine and be so interwoven into the story that you will feel yourself as more than just a reading onlooker, but as a vested part of the story. Her development of Clara Driscoll and her life, as well as the people in it, is fantastic way beyond normal measurment scales.
My Relationship to the Book
I first picked this book when I saw the title had to do with the stained glass work of Tiffany Studios. I have loved the art of stained glass ever since I was a young girl and had recently been to the Cleveland Museum of Art near where I live in Ohio. I went twice in fact and both times loved taking time to look at the large stained glass mosaic window salvaged from a former mansion in the Cleveland area, as well as several Tiffany stained glass lamps. I even took photos, which I will show here (though I wish I would have realized I would be showing the world and I might have taken better shots).
Here is my daughter standing next to the stained glass window made by Tiffany, which is on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art (www.clevelandart.org) and 3 of their Tiffany Lamps (they have more) that are displayed in a glass case. (Photos are rights reserved)
Background of the Book
When historians discovered, in 2005, that two sets of letters existed apart from each other (one set in New York, the other owned by a museum in Kent, Ohio) written by a Mrs. Clara Driscoll to her family in Ohio, scholars united to unlock this must-told story of a woman who recently became known through these letters to have designed such exquisite pieces of art that they are in very high esteem today. She was never recognized for her artistic and design talent. We know her story only because during the Victorian era many people wrote long and detailed letters to each other, and in fact, recorded their own history much to the delight of the world today.
Since most of the world for the last 100 years had been thinking that the famous Tiffany lamps were created by Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of the infamous Charles Tiffany of Tiffany and Co. jewelry acclaim, no one realized that a woman they knew little about would actually turn out to be the designer and creator of these special lamps. An exhibit called New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls opened in 2007 and presented the work of those aforementioned historians and the New York Historical Society (which houses over 130 donated Tiffany Lamps). Vreeland encountered this exhibit and decided to do her part to tell Clara’s story to the world in the form of the historical fiction novel, “Clara and Mr. Tiffany.”
About the Book
Holding true to as many historically accurate accounts as possible in the book, she expertly crafted a non-fiction tribute into a fluid and monumental historical fiction story that can capture an audience, filling only in between the lines from researched imagination to make it an interesting read and give us a glimpse into Clara’s life in a format we love to read.
Photo below: Dragonfly Electrolier with Twisted Stem Water Lily Standard. Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA.
This book was so amazingly informative on so many levels. Not only did I love that she gave Clara her much overdo respect by telling her story, but it taught about the intricacies of glass making and stained glass art through the eyes of the Tiffany Studios’ Women’s department, the only factory in New York during the late 1800s-early 1900s to have a women’s department. I loved reading about Tiffany’s love of nature and how he taught others to see the beauty of it and put it into their art. Driscoll also had a love for the intricacies of nature, many times taking walks or excursions to gardens to view the amazing wonder of flowers and insects which she then consulted with Tiffany about and put into her design. The piecework and patience that went into choosing the right glass and constructing both the Tiffany stained glass windows and their lamps was inspiring.
The work of fiction also dealt with Clara’s life as a widow and her life as a single New Woman (a term for the time used for women who had started to crave freedom and enjoyed life outside of the domestic home). This era saw the rise of the women’s independence, such as women learning to ride bicycles, yet she was not allowed to be married while she worked at Tiffany Studios. She remained single for most of her life, but several romances that carry through the book are based on true relationships. Her romances gave an air of forbidden and misunderstood love and presented how women of this new age were trying to hold onto some of their mother’s Victorian way of romance so as not to offend society while becoming their own free and independent women.
The novel portrays her lifestyle, like many at the time, in the boarding houses of New York. Unique personalities were many times brought together and in due course became friends and supporters of each other. In the book, Clara is surrounded by at least five men who truly had an impact on her life, each having meaning to her in different ways. The character development of these true to life characters come alive off the page and give us even more insight into lifestyles during the beginning of the 20th century. Teaching us how different people, from different cultures, backgrounds, and lifestyles could meld together to form a city full of life with the new century emerging is one key point the book sets-out. The book also shows us the life of the lower class in New York~the many immigrants who came to the United States for a better life only to live in plotted hallway sections as overflow, go through extreme poverty, child labor, and disease and death.
Many women that Clara employed she hand-picked either from free art classes, or from young teenage women on the Lower East Side that showed potential and promise that came from families where they might be the only one able enough to work. Being able to work in the Tiffany Studios’ Women’s Department, at a higher wage than they could ever make anywhere else, was an enormous accomplishment. The book certainly highlights the rapid changes in New York as the labor disputing begins and touches on the start of the discourse that unionized men began to have with women working out of the home.
Final Thoughts on the Book
Not only does this book redeem Clara Driscoll, posthumously of course, but Vreeland’s telling of her story helps to redeem all women from the isolation and ridicule of the working world. The book is a great gateway into the artistic art world of the new 20th century, the emergence of the New Woman, as well as the workings of the front-end of the industrial age, shown to us through the female point of view.
It gives a wealth of information on the illustrious Tiffany family and Louis Comfort Tiffany’s downfall from riches, which was extremely interesting. Since Tiffany’s esteemed (and too expensive) mansion Laurelton Hall finally burned in the 1950s, many records from Tiffany Studios were lost. The letters of Clara Driscoll were a miracle to historical preservation. Vreeland’s ability to use these letters to shine a light on the world of art during the turn of the century is just as miraculous as the history itself and makes this book its own work of art.
I urge you to read more about the book and the history behind it by going online to Susan Vreeland’s website at www.svreeland.com. There are also many historical photos as well as pictures of the many beautiful lamps.
About Susan Vreeland, author:
Susan Vreeland is the internationally known author of art-related historical fiction. Her newest, Clara and Mr. Tiffany, as well as three earlier books, are New York Times Best Sellers. Luncheon of the Boating Party reveals Renoir’s masterpiece, the personalities involved in its making, and the joie de vivre of late nineteenth century Paris. Life Studies is a collection of stories of Impressionist painters and contemporary people encountering art. Girl in Hyacinth Blue traces an alleged Vermeer painting through the centuries. The Passion of Artemisia illuminates Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi. The Forest Lover follows rebel British Columbia painter Emily Carr in her encounters with native people and cultures. Three of these books have been winners of the Theodor Geisel Award, the highest honor given by the San Diego Book Awards. Vreeland’s novels have been translated into twenty-six languages, and have frequently been selected as Book Sense Picks. She was a high school English teacher in San Diego for thirty years.