Thursday, May 10, 2012

Review: Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland

History is written by the victors, those with money, and for a long time, exclusively by men. Women's contributions to arts and sciences remained all but unacknowledged with others being given credit for their innovations. Susan Vreeland's novel Clara and Mr. Tiffany probes one such omission and creates a fantastic story out of the tale. Based on real people and what is actually known about them and their artistic endeavors, this novel suggests, with good historical probability, that Clara Driscoll, the head designer in Tiffany's Women's Department was in fact the genesis, creator, and designer of the gorgeous iconic leaded glass Tiffany lamps rather than Louis Comfort Tiffany himself.

Opening with the recently widowed Clara returning to Tiffany studios to ask for her job back, the novel tracks her life, her rise as an artist, her inspiration, and her fight for equality and acknowledgement within her chosen field. Clara is innovative and creative and she suggests to Mr. Tiffany that they consider making leaded glass lampshades so that those unable or unwilling to commission stained glass windows for their homes or churches, will be able to have a smaller jewel of a piece to admire in their own homes. Clara's passion for her lamp idea drives her professionally even as she and the girls (all young, all unmarried) she's hired into the studio continue to work on the commissioned showpiece windows as well. In hiring and teaching other women to select and cut the glass, Clara describes the artistic process by which Tiffany's masterpieces were made allowing the reader insights into this slow and exacting process.

While her work fulfills and consumes her, Clara's personal life is rather bumpier than her professional one. She develops close and dear friendships with many of the boarders in her boarding house, many of whom are artists themselves, and they come to have a personal interest in her successes. She also embarks, tentatively, on a relationship with the brother of one of her dear friends. Her ability to trust after her disastrous first marriage is slow to develop, hampered as well by Tiffany's policy of not employing married women. Any relationship to which she fully commits will deprive her of an outlet for her art and creativity. She is torn by the need to make her art and her desire to be loved. And so her relationships with the opposite sex are considered and deliberate and gradual.

Clara is an interesting character, prickly and yet motherly, timid yet firm. She is caught at the crossroads between Victorian morality and etiquette and the nascent women's movement. She tries to work within the system, swallowing her rage at the precariousness of her second class status until she can no longer do so at the risk of her job. She cares deeply for the women under her in her department, involving herself in their lives outside the workshop and trying to help these mostly immigrant girls and indeed any artistically inclined women to better themselves. Louis Comfort Tiffany is also interestingly drawn here. He is a many faceted character, object of Clara's devotion, artistic, whimsical, autocratic, demanding, and ultimately impotent in the face of almighty commerce. He and Clara maintain a mentor/mentee relationship most of the time although there are moments of true collaboration and certainly mutual respect for each others' artistic talents. Neither Clara nor Mr. Tiffany is presented without flaws, making them human and their interactions more believable. The secondary characters have fascinating back stories themselves although they, by necessity, only touch on and shoot through the main tale, part of the whole but not the major focus of the piece.

The plot line is a little slow and concentrates on the admittedly extraordinary arc of Clara's mostly solo life for 16 years. Historical happenings and attitudes are woven into the narrative beautifully so that the reader can appreciate just how people lived at the time and on the cusp of wonderous huge change. The glimpse into Tiffany's studio and the innovative women's department is instructive and fascinating. Part women's history, part social history, part art history, this is a wonderful read that reminds us all of the necessity for beauty and love and art in everyday life. Tiffany tells his girls that he doesn't believe in limits and that they need to learn to see beauty and this novel helps us as readers to remember both of these important things as well.

For more information about Susan Vreeland and the book visit her website, her Facebook page, or read and excerpt of the book. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.


  1. The historical aspect is fascinating.

  2. I love the sound of this one, I really hope my library purchases a copy.

  3. I've long admired Tiffany's windows. I must admit I'd never thought about how they were created, I guess I just presumed it was him working away by himself, I didn't realise there was a whole studio behind him. This book sounds intriguing, I'm going to keep an eye out for it.


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