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Susan Vreeland’s CLARA AND MR. TIFFANY: A letter to book clubs

Monday, January 3rd, 2011

Vreeland author photo smallDear thoughtful readers,

As a measure of gratitude to book clubs having requested an American novel, I turned to our own shores and found rich reward in Louis Comfort Tiffany. For a century, everyone assumed that the iconic Tiffany lamps were conceived and designed by that American master of stained glass. Not so! It was a woman! Aha! A woman discovered by art historians as recently as 2005 and introduced to the public in a 2007 exhibition at the New York Historical Society. A vibrant, wry, freethinking New Woman ripe for a fictional treatment. I rubbed my hands together in glee.

As New York careens toward the modernity of the twentieth century when Gibson girls were transforming themselves into working women, Clara Driscoll enters the male field of stained glass artistry, and builds a lively, multi-national, multi-class women’s department within Tiffany Studios. Developing a new feminist consciousness, Clara and The Tiffany Girls must triumph over the intimidation of the male workers intent on ousting them.

Clara is torn between love and art. Holding on to the old order, Mr. Tiffany forbade his women workers from marrying. Loving in different ways the five men in her life, including Tiffany himself, Clara must decide repeatedly what makes her most happy–the professional world of her hands, or the personal world of her heart.

Clara and Mr. Tiffany coverLiving in a kaleidoscope of elements—opulence and poverty, excitement and despair, beauty and ugliness—all jostling each other, Clara witnesses the celebration of the consolidation of the five boroughs into the second largest city of the world, the flood of European immigrants into the Lower East Side, the opening of the first subway, the building of the first skyscrapers, the first lit ball descending from the Times Tower. She gazes high above the East River where a roadway had been flung over the tops of masts, suspended on wire threads between two lordly towers. The colossus of the Brooklyn Bridge speaks to her of courage and daring, genius and human effort on a grand scale, and she absorbs its inspirational effect. The whole city shouts to her, “Dare. Create. Love.”

Referring to visual beauty in an essay titled, “The Quest of Beauty,” Tiffany wrote, “There is beauty everywhere, in everything. It is a mental attitude.” However, Clara, or rather the act of rendering her story, taught me that there are more types of beauty than just the sensual beauties. There is the beauty of instinctive acts of generosity and caring, as evidenced by Edwin, Clara’s mysterious one-time fiancé, leaping off a rolling streetcar to tell the Russian woman of the job he found for her son. There is the beauty of Clara’s compassion for the Polish immigrants Julia and Olga whom she hired to prevent them from leading limited, hard-scrabble lives. There is the beauty of non-judgmental acceptance, as shown in her warm friendships with four gay artists, including the puckish, flamboyant, completely lovable George, and the masquerading and intellectual art director of Tiffany Studios. In the last analysis, these beauties may be more profoundly important than the beauties of the visible world.

Never have Clara Driscoll or Mr. Tiffany appeared in a novel until now, so this will be entirely fresh for your book club to discuss. As my schedule permits, your reading group of ten or more can arrange a phone chat with me by emailing me through my website, www.susanvreeland.com. I look forward to hearing from you.

With joyful expectations,

Susan Vreeland

Susan Vreeland’s CLARA AND MR. TIFFANY: a reading guide

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

Clara and Mr. Tiffany coverA sweeping story of art and love set against the exciting backdrop of turn-of-the-century New York City.

It’s 1893 and Louis Comfort Tiffany makes his debut with a luminous exhibition of innovative stained-glass windows, which he hopes will honor his family business and earn him a place on the international artistic stage. But behind the scenes in his New York studio is the free-thinking Clara Driscoll. Publicly unrecognized by Tiffany, Clara conceives of and designs nearly all of the iconic leaded-glass lamps for which he is long remembered.

Struggling with desire for artistic recognition and faced with the insurmountable challenges of a professional woman, Clara is ultimately forced to protest against the company she worked so hard to cultivate. She must decide what makes her happiest—the professional world of her hands or the personal world of her heart.

Consider these questions when reading Clara and Mr. Tiffany:

1. How do Clara’s yearnings and goals change during the course of the novel. What personal growth is revealed, and what experiences prompt that growth?

2. At the first Tiffany Ball with Edwin in chapter nine, Clara says, “We straddled a double world.” How does that play out in Clara’s experience? What did she learn from Edwin?

3. Of all of the adjectives Clara and Alice heap on Tiffany in chapter twenty-seven, which ones do you believe are justified and which are exaggerations? In spite of their accusations, Clara says in the same scene that she adores him. How can that be? Did she truly love him? What kind of love was it?

4. How was Clara’s love different for each of the five men in her life? Given that love can sometimes be an indefinable thing, in each case, what prompted her love and how did it change, if at all?

5. Is George Waldo a tragic character? Is Edwin? Is Wilhelmina? How do you define tragic character?

6. Throughout the novel there are social contrasts–rich and poor, suffering and insouciance. Speculate on how these serve to make Clara a more well-rounded or deeper person, as well as how they serve to make the novel transcend the period depicted.

7. Mr. Tiffany makes a surprising final concession in chapter forty-seven. What was it based on? In light of it, should Clara have stayed working at Tiffany Studios? How was her decision right or wrong for her?

8. How is the Brooklyn Bridge an icon or symbol of the time? Consider its style, the construction process, the men and woman who worked on it. You may have to do a little research. Why was Edwin so moved by it? What other material things were symbols of the time? In what way were Tiffany lamps icons of the time?

9. The style and sensibility that had no name at the turn of the century came to be known as camp, one element of which is seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon and then exaggerating it. Another element of it is the playful duplicity of which Henry Belknap speaks. What art movements, artists, or pieces of art in your lifetimes reflect the camp sensibility? Do you own anything with camp sensibility? Oscar Wilde, spokesperson of high camp, said, “In matters of great importance, the vital element is not sincerity, but style.” To what extent do you hold this to be true? Was he just being flippant by making this statement or is there any truth to it?

10. The protagonists of two other novels of mine are female artists. How do Clara’s goals, obstacles, and attitudes compare with those of Artemisia Gentileschi and Emily Carr? Has anything changed for women in the arts?

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