Imagine a woman being forced to leave her job today because she was soon to be married. At the turn of the twentieth century, Clara Driscoll, the talented designer for Louis Comfort Tiffany’s glass creations, found herself forced to choose between a husband or a career. But not before leaving her legacy of design and color on the beautiful Tiffany lamps that she created.
In Clara and Mr. Tiffany, Susan Vreeland found her inspiration from a 2005 discovery of Clara Driscoll’s letters, using this historic source for creating a fictional account of Clara’s life and career with Tiffany. The letters reveal that Clara designed the famous Tiffany lamps, not Charles Comfort Tiffany, the artist son of the famous jeweler.
Like her other novels based on history and art – Luncheon of the Boating Party and Girl in Hyacinth Blue – Vreeland weaves fact with fiction. If she doesn’t know what Charles Comfort Tiffany said to Clara, she makes it up – and probably gets it pretty close. And, like her other books, she tends to defer to her research, including a large amount of accurate historical and technical detail – sometimes, it’s overwhelming but always informative. You will probably appreciate the nuances more if you are an artist yourself.
The story focuses on Clara Driscoll, who returns to work for Tiffany when she is widowed. Tiffany had a policy of no married women in his shop, which eventually leads to the decision the real Clara as well as the fictional Clara struggled with when she receives another offer of marriage. Depicted as a strong and talented career woman, who can manage a group of young women under her supervision, Clara nevertheless seems to be content with her role behind the scenes – working anonymously, with Louis Tiffany receiving all the credit for her lamp designs.
Clara’s initial role is to execute Tiffany’s designs for windows and the famous exhibition at the Chicago World’s Fair. She’s a modern woman for her day, propositioning her fiancé so she can be sure they are compatible in bed. But, most of the story is about the work – the glassmaking, the colors of the “favrile,” the delicate cuttings, the weight of the lead. Vreeland adds finite descriptions of Tiffany’s mansion and his art, the basis for the famous stained glass windows executed by his staff of women. She includes the excruciating preparations for displays.
Frankly, the dialogue became tedious after awhile, and I looked forward to more information on Clara’s personal life – which became scarcer as the story continued. This book was a slow methodical read – meticulous and precise in detailing the process of the art. Whenever I read one of Vreeland’s books, I’m back to being a student with a technical reading assignment. It’s satisfying to complete; I learn a lot; and I plod along as I go. In this case, the real story was more compelling than Vreeland’s embellishments (see link below).
As an afterward, Vreeland gives the actual history of Clara giving up her art – after designing the popular lamps – to marry and once again leave Tiffany’s employ in 1909, at age 47. In Vreeland’s version, Clara leaves to marry because “Art alone can’t suffice…” and she has fulfilled her “lifework” in the designs she created for Tiffany.
Over 100 years later, she finally got credit for it.