Sometimes historical fiction shows that the history’s been based on a fiction. In 2005, scholars uncovered evidence that the famous Tiffany leaded-glass lamps of a century ago may not have been designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany at all. Instead, they were probably conceived and created by one of Tiffany’s designers, Clara Driscoll, and the “Tiffany Girls” in her women’s design department.
Novelist Susan Vreeland fills in imagined details in the professional relationship between the magnate — elegant, intense, lisping — and his more than merely capable employee.
Vreeland blends in history sometimes effectively (the rides at Coney Island, the construction of the Flatiron Building) and sometimes clumsily (in expository passages about glass-making, the Statue of Liberty and the McKinley assassination). But her narration can get preachy when it comes to the rights of immigrants, homosexuals, women and artists.
Too often, the dialogue takes on a narrator’s tone: “I have struggled out of widow’s weeds to gather a wedding trousseau, and now I’ve packed it in some attic of my mind” is not the way people spoke conversationally, even in the more articulate society of a century ago.
But if Vreeland’s prose style is only occasionally compact and expressive, her blending of historical facts into fiction is usually effective.
Clara’s friendships (and more) with half a dozen men are well delineated. Her discoveries (new glass-making methods, new ways to regard a woman’s place in the workforce) have the stops and starts, dead ends and temporary successes of everyday life.
Vreeland can provide a page-turning experience, too. There are goodbye scenes and death scenes that are unexpectedly moving. She creates suspense in an extremely detailed description of leaded-glass window-making techniques — which sounds like a real snooze — by adding deadline pressure. (Mr. Tiffany wanted his customers’ orders to be filled quickly. Then he quickly took all the credit.)
Despite their flaws and differences, however, Clara Driscoll and Louis Tiffany bonded over their shared vision of how beautiful the glassmakers’ art could be, and Vreeland has provided a mostly pleasant excursion into a previously unknown region of American art history.