In her sixth work of fiction about the inter-penetration of life and art, Vreeland (Luncheon of the Boating Party, 2007, etc.) celebrates the putative designer of Tiffany’s leaded-glass lampshades.
That would be Clara Driscoll. Some art historians now believe that it was Clara, unacknowledged in her lifetime, who conceived the lampshades. What is indisputable is that, encouraged by Louis Tiffany, she was a major creative force at his Glass and Decorating Company. (This was separate from the jewelry company, run by his father Charles.) From 1892 to 1908, she oversaw the Women’s Department; many of her workers were from poor immigrant families and still in their teens. Louis would not employ married women. Clara had returned to the company after her much older husband Francis died, omitting her from his will. Vreeland’s account of the marriage is sketchy; her primary focus is on the workplace. Here Clara is a commanding figure: a mother hen to the Tiffany Girls, a feminist challenging the rampant sexism of the Men’s Department and an imaginative innovator marrying glass to flowers and insects. Her greatest triumph was the dragonfly lamp at the Paris Exposition, though even there she was not given credit. However, she did find consolation in her bohemian downtown boardinghouse, especially in the company of the madcap painter George Waldo (gay, like several of their fellow lodgers) and his straight brother Edwin, a prospective husband until his mysterious disappearance. Vreeland guides us conscientiously through the world of glass, of cames and cabochons, though the detail can be overwhelming. More damagingly, she has let the stifling propriety of the time infect Clara as narrator; though prim among her peers, she could surely have unbuttoned to us, her readers. Louis, cocooned in reverence, suffers too. His one memorable scene comes after his wife’s death when, a remorseful drunk, his language turns salty.
A novel that reads like a labor of love. Unfortunately, the labor is as evident as the love.