Susan Vreeland renders yet another artist’s life in fiction in her latest novel, Clara and Mr. Tiffany. Instead of focusing on Louis Comfort Tiffany, Vreeland chooses to tell the story of the woman behind the man: Clara Driscoll. This book is inspired by Clara Driscoll’s letters, which were brought to light in 2005 and resulted in a 2007 exhibit and catalog entitled A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls.
Clara Driscoll has just been hired as the head of Tiffany Studio’s Women’s Glass Cutting Department in order to help finish a major glass window installation for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. As Mr. Tiffany shows Clara his watercolor paintings that serve as the inspiration for the windows, she has a startling vision of one of his paintings being made into a glass lampshade.
Clara and her group of glass cutters and selectors find themselves inspired by the exciting new developments heralding the Gilded Age, and they prove to be a talented and hardworking team. As Tiffany receives accolades – and orders – for Clara’s intricate and expensive lamps, she starts to feel that her place at Tiffany Studios is secure. However, certain events threaten to stifle her creativity and livelihood.
Against the backdrop of the suffrage movement, Clara is forced to protect her department when Tiffany’s Men’s Department organizes a union protest and threatens to strike. She must also fight back against Tiffany’s financial advisors, who wish to slash the budget for her lamps. And, when Clara falls in love, she must choose between her relationship or her career, since Mr. Tiffany has a strict policy against employing married women.
Vreeland masterfully combines details from Clara’s letters with historical events and colorful fictional elements to allow the reader to see a woman who was deeply passionate about art and life. In the book - as in life - Clara loved bicycling and attending the opera. She was a modern, forward-thinking woman who advocated for women workers. She was fiercely protective of her Tiffany girls and fiercely loyal to her friends. I was thoroughly entranced by the world that Vreeland created in this novel, and I highly recommend it.