Trying to decide what to check out next from the library, I read the back of the audiobook Clara and Mr. Tiffany and saw “Clara must decide what makes her happiest—the professional world of her hands or the personal world of her heart.” As I was not particularly interested in either Tiffany or romance, I looked for something else to listen to during my commute.
But the next time I was back looking for another audiobook (a typical audiobook takes me about two weeks), I decided to give Clara and Mr. Tiffany a try. I’ve been finding most of the historical fiction I’ve been reading (or listening to) quite interesting, including people and period I hadn’t thought I cared about.
So it was with Tiffany lamps and the little-known woman who designed them. Clara Driscoll finds great fulfillment in her work turning Tiffany’s designs into beautiful leaded glass windows. She would also like to find fulfillment in marriage, but Mr. Tiffany has a strict policy against employing married women. So Clara has to choose between love and art.
When she falls in love, she hopes to make herself indispensable to Mr. Tiffany so that he will make an exception for her. There is a sense in which she loves him also, as a fellow artist, and yearns for his approval of her own art. She creates fantastic leaded glass lamps based on nature motifs. Tiffany is very pleased – but he refuses to make that exception to his policy.
As things turn out, the fiance mysteriously disappears, apparently due to mental instability. (A letter sent to his brother years later reveals that he has no memory of the time he spent courting Clara.) So Clara returns to Tiffany Studios, where she continues to turn out one exquisite lamp after another.
It hurts her pride that Tiffany never publicly acknowledges her as the artist behind his popular lamps. But she loves her work, and the “Tiffany girls” in the department that she runs. Mostly poor immigrants, they not only earn decent wages but find beauty in the glass they work on, and a respite from the squalor and strife of the lower East Side.
In the course of relating Clara’s personal and professional life, Susan Vreeland tells much about life in New York City in the early years of the twentieth century. Wealthy men like Tiffany live in unimaginably ornate mansions, while masses of immigrant live in crowded tenements. Women’s roles are changing, as some demand the right to vote, and others assert their right to work in places once restricted to men – such as leaded glass studios.
Clara also observes firsthand the conflict between “Art and Commerce.” Tiffany’s business manager struggles to control costs, trying to keep the company solvent. Clara’s designs, while beautiful, have very high labor costs. Mr. Tiffany is obsessed with beauty and ignores financial realities – until he is forced to recognize the consequences of his profligate spending.
Clara is very much on the side of Art. Like Mr. Tiffany, she is in love with beauty, and she does not think mere monetary considerations should interfere with the creation of beauty. At times, she comes across as almost a snob, as when she scolds one of the girls for getting married, because it will mean the girl is cut off from the beauty of the glass and forced into a life of drudgery doing poorly paid piecework in the tenements.
These days, it is common to hear some conservatives lament how many women work outside the home, putting their children in daycare so the family can have a nicer home, cars, vacation, etc. It’s true that there are cases where the family could get by on one salary if they settled for a lower standard of living, without descending into poverty.
But in the time and place Clara lived, it wasn’t a question of whether these immigrant women would work to help support their families. That was essential to bare survival. The question was whether they would work under good conditions for a decent wage, as in Tiffany Studios, or in sweatshops as so many of them did.
My own maternal grandparents lived in New York City around this time. (I think my grandfather’s parents were first generation immigrants, since my mother remembers her grandmother speaking German. They lived in a “cold water flat” and worked long hours running a small store while raising a large family. My grandfather worked hard to become a lawyer and give his family a much higher standard of living.) No doubt part of my interest in this book was to hear descriptions of city sights they would have been familiar with, events they might have experienced.
I wished, as I listened to the book, that I could see these myself, as I have trouble visualizing them from the descriptions. The same thing with the lamps Clara designed – but at least these I knew I could find photographs of later. Here are some of the works described in the novel. It’s easy to see how much work went into pieces such as the Wisteria Lamp – and also why an artist like Mr. Tiffany was so pleased with Clara’s creations.