“The Price of A Maid”: Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chavalier

“The Price of A Maid”: Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chavalier

“He saw things in a way that others did not, so that a city I had lived in all my life seemed a different place, so that a woman became beautiful with the light on her face” – Griet

I have read this book about three times now. I think it’s fascinating how Tracy Chavalier thought of Griet’s story by looking at Vermeer’s painting. Every time I read this book, I am amazed by how Chavalier herself seems to be the true artist in this book from the way she paints the scenes for readers. For example, the story begins at Griet’s house, when she is about to meet Johannes Vermeer and his wife for the first time. Griet is chopping vegetables in her kitchen when she hears voices outside her door, “…a woman’s, bright as polished brass, and a man’s, low and dark like the wood of the table [she] was working on” (3). In their voices, she hears “rich carpets…books and pearls and fur” (3), while in her mother’s voice, she hears “a cooking pot, a flagon” (3). It is the way Chavalier phrases things, like how Vermeer speaks his wife’s name “as if he held cinnamon in his mouth” (4) that draws me to this book.

What stands out to me the most is the story behind the earrings Griet wears in the painting. It didn’t occur to me in the past, but for some reason, I realized how unhappy I was for Griet and how her story turned out. When Catharina sees her husband’s painting of Griet, she raises hell, as everyone expected her to. She turns to her husband and asks, “Why have you never painted me?” and he says to her, “You and the children are not a part of this world. You are not meant to be” (215). Even though he loves her, and speaks her name as if he held cinnamon in his mouth, he seems to have a clear boundary between the world that belongs to his painting, and the world that doesn’t. Therefore, despite the strong feelings Griet has for him, in Vermeer’s eyes, Griet may have just been a maid, albeit an interesting one. When Vermeer asked her to wear his wife’s earrings for the painting, Griet had refused, saying “Maids do not wear pearls” (194). To which Vermeer replied, “You know that the painting needs it, the light that the pearl reflects. It won’t be complete otherwise” (195). So in the painting, Griet is looking over her shoulder, her wild curly hair hidden, her mouth slightly open like Vermeer asked, with Vermeer’s wife’s earrings in her ears. For such a painting, she had to sacrifice her position as a maid. Although, the fact that she, the maid, had feelings for Vermeer, an artist with a family, was never a good idea to begin with.

Book: Chevalier, Tracy. Girl with a Pearl Earring. Plume, 1999.

 

“Remember, Coco, you’re only a woman”: Mademoiselle Chanel by C.W. Gortner

“Remember, Coco, you’re only a woman”: Mademoiselle Chanel by C.W. Gortner

From C.W. Gortner’s Mademoiselle Chanel, I learned the secret behind Chanel’s logo… 

“Boy” Capel, the man whom Gabrielle Chanel (her birthname) loved and would never forget even after his death, warned her once by saying, “Remember, Coco, you’re only a woman.” Boy was Coco’s most loyal friend and supporter, as well as lover, and even as he warned her, he did everything he could to help Gabrielle Chanel achieve her goals. He also told her, “What we do not earn ourselves…is never truly ours. It can always be taken away. But even if we lose everything we work for, the achievement is ours forever.” This helped Gabrielle as she made sure that what she achieved belonged to herself, including the shops she opened where her various clothing items would be sold. After Boy’s unexpected death, Gabrielle Chanel made him part of the logo that anyone would recognize even today:
“Capel and Coco, Coco and Capel, Capel and Coco . . . C and C. In time, I would revert the positions, interlocked but facing outward, independent yet together. Always. It would become my emblem. It was how I would honor him.”

Even though Gabrielle was fierce and passionate about her work, one thing that she dealt with throughout her life was the expectation that women needed to be married to rich men to be satisfied for the rest of their lives. Right now, I am at an age where women usually get married and have children. Actually, if I were still in Korea, it would have been considered a late marriage for someone at my age, and I’m still in my late twenties. I don’t have thoughts of marriage on my mind, but I am constantly wondering if I should. In C.W. Gortner’s Mademoiselle Chanel, Gabrielle Chanel wonders, “Did nothing else matter if I failed to accomplish the one feat that defined women? Was my lack of a husband and child to become the seed of my discontent…?” Even as she designed clothes for women that made them freer to enjoy everyday work, she still was faced with this barrier of society’s definition of “woman.” If someone were to ask me the question: “What is more important to you – marriage, or career?” I would not know what to say because I honestly do not know the answer. Therefore, I found it admirable that Gabrielle Chanel was aware that for her, work was more important than anything else.

I was also reminded of my sister while reading this novel. Similar to Gabrielle Chanel, my sister is passionate about fashion, always coming up with her own designs, and creating her own pieces. She is also unwavering in her belief that she will make something of herself, and as far as I am aware, marriage is not on her mind at the moment. Even as Gabrielle Chanel doubted herself at times, she was unwavering in her belief in her goals, and she pursued them with dogged determination. As for myself, I am still wavering in what exactly it is that I want for myself, even to this day. For this, I admire people like Gabrielle Chanel and my sister, for their strength, insight, and determination.

Coco Chanel left behind to the world a design of clothes that allow women to move more freely, to feel unique, and to feel beautiful. In his novel, C.W. Gortner quotes Coco Chanel who once said:
“Simplicity is true elegance. A woman is closest to being naked when she is well dressed. Her clothing should be seen only after she herself is.”

 

Work Cited:
Gortner, C.W.. Mademoiselle Chanel: A Novel. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.