Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Clara and Mr. Tiffany Book Review

Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland

Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland is an interesting novel, giving readers a glimpse into the behind the scenes world of the Tiffany Glass Company and the captive lives of women during the Victorian era. The decorative art pieces showcased in the company's Fifth Avenue store in New York belie their less glamorous happenings backstage.

Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland

Clara Driscoll apparently was the creative genius behind Mr. Tiffany's legendary leaded glass lampshades. She was the one who came up with the idea and then with her department of female artists, fashioned designs inspired by nature. Louis Tiffany admits, "I've always thought that women have greater sensitivity to nuances of color than men do," but he takes all the credit for the finished products, untouched by the sacrifices given by his employees. The Tiffany girls were expected to remain single, couldn't vote and weren't allowed to join unions. It was a man's world and Clara, true to the era, accepts their lot in life. She asks her employees to pledge their commitment to the work over love, and most comply. Clara Driscoll's contributions to stained glass art were unrecognized until 2005, when letters she'd written were discovered.

Clara is frustrated by the limitations of womens' roles and does play a part in the slow process for gender equality by her dedication to her job and her promotion of unionizing female workers, but she still acquiesces to the men in her life, especially Tiffany. He is wealthy beyond belief, selfish and flamboyant, and disregards the feelings of his wife, daughters and female employees in all his decisions. Despite his flaws, Driscoll feels closely bonded to him, but he rarely returns the sentiment. One day she cries in his office over the death of Wilhelmina and he offers her one of his monogrammed handkerchiefs, which becomes a keepsake to cherish, wrapped in tissue and stored in a drawer at home. Later her expensive lamps become an unsustainable enterprise for the company and have to be discontinued. She is deflated that Tiffany allows this defeat, lamenting that he let "commerce triumph over art."
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Vreeland's exhaustive historical research is evident in the book with her references to the erection of the Flatiron Building in Manhattan, author O. Henry's appearance at a local restaurant, song and book titles, and the new subway. She mentions the brothels, mansions, lobster palaces and a stable on Broadway that Clara and her friends walk past on their way to Times Square the first New Year's Eve in 1907. They watch the giant ball lit with electric lightbulbs descend from a flagpole for the first time. The novel is written in the superb Vreeland style, and should be of interest to anyone who loves the Victorian era and especially, Tiffany glassware.


Susan Vreeland, Clara and Mr. Tiffany (New York, NY: Random House, Inc., 2011).


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