I just finished Clara and Mr Tiffany by Susan Vreeland.
It’s quite an enjoyable read. Of course, as always with historical fiction, I feel somewhat confused!
Based on historical details, and letters saved, Ms. Vreeland creates the story of the adult life of Mrs. Clara Discoll, a “Tiffany Girl” who eventually became the manager of the Tiffany Girls.
I was utterly fascinated by the entire novel. To be fair, I should state that my family does have a strong connection to Tiffany. My Great-Grandmother worked in the Ecclesiastical Department as a letterer. So, I am always quite interested in learning more about how my Great-Grandmother lived. We are always somewhat confused as it is well known that Mr. Tiffany had a strict policy of employing only single, unmarried ladies. It would appear from my Grandmother’s recollection that my Great-Grandmother had worked as a letterer, and gotten married and somehow, was still able to continue working here and there, because my Grandmother recalls her bringing home work, and becoming very cross if she were to touch it! In the Novel, Clara Discoll marries late in life, and this would reflect my Great-grandmother’s situation as well, as she was married later in life, and adopted my Grandmother via a long string of circumstances none of us quite understand. My Grandmother grew up in Grammercy park and recalls coming and going from the Tiffany Studios, and the famous Mr. Belknap. Because of the Vague-ness of the history, my Mother and I have both researched it thoroughly, and found that yes, photos of my Great-Grandmother and my Grandmother are present in the Archives at the Morse Museum in Winter Park Florida, but that their records and not much more detailed. My Grandmother suffered for quite some time with Alzeheimer’s disease, most of her memories were lost.
Beyond the connection to my family, I found the book to be a fascinating read.
While the story is mainly of Clara, and her life, Vreeland is able to have Clara Driscoll describe so many of the challenges and joys of an independent woman at the turn of the century. Mrs. Driscoll (a widower), describes the happiness of creating beautiful art, and being a successful employee, all the while longing for more recognition that would be given a woman at that time. Clara describes herself as a “New Woman”, emphasizing her ability to be more than a wife or mother, while at the same time feeling regret regarding her romantic endeavors, and a deep need for recognition of her design talents.
The novel paints quite a picture of class differences at the time, describing in detail how the “Tiffany Girls” were hired from some of the most destitute neighbourhoods. I was fascinated by the fact that these girls, mostly glasscutters, most often never saw the entire finished work that they worked on. Can you imagine working to create some of the most lovely art glass pieces and not seeing the final product ever?
In addition, Ms. Vreeland sheds much light on the entire design process at the Tiffany Company, explaining in detail how certain types of special Tiffany glass, such as Favrile Glass. Although I knew a lot about the studios, I really had never thought about the work of cutting each small piece of glass and then selecting just the correct colors.
It was a charming, and fascinating combination of lessons in history, glass cutting and selecting, and personal emotions. The only thing that utterly disturbs me is what usually disturbs me in regards to historical fiction. It is all just conjecture. While the author had letters and certainly researched the Tiffany Company, she has used her imagination to create characters, and we don’t really know if things were exactly as described. They are quite endearing, but one has to wonder what REALLY happened.
In addition, I suppose I was hoping to learn more of my Great-grandmother. No such luck there. There is one mention of the Ecclesiastical Department in the entire book….Ah well!
I’d recommend this to anyone interested in Tiffany, Decorative Arts, or just that general “era”. It could certianly change the way you see Mr. Tiffany!