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' Girl With A Pearl Earring' is told through the eyes of 16-year old Griet, the narrator. The reader sees her grow from a young girl who lives at home with her mother, father and younger sister into a woman with a family of her own. She goes from innocence and purity to experience throughout the course of the book.
At the beginning of the book, Griet is chosen to work as maid for the artist Vermeer in his home in the Catholic quarter of Delft, 'Papists' corner'. Both the world of a maid and the Catholic lifestyle are startlingly new to Griet who was raised a Protestant.
Griet's first impressions of Catholicism are not positive as she is confronted by terrifying religious paintings in the home of the Vermeers. She is stunned and unnerved by the picture of Christ on the cross in the Crucifixion room:
"The painting surprised me so much that I did not notice the woman in the corner until she spoke." (p.18 'Girl With A Pearl Earring')
Worse yet was the crucifixion picture at the bottom of Griet's bed, which disturbed her sleep and left her feeling like the Virgin Mary was watching her. Griet also seems to disapprove of the Catholic practise of having lots of children, as she can see that the Vermeers cannot afford to feed so many mouths and Catharina is hardly a competent mother. Later in the book, Griet imagines that the paintings in Catholic churches would be similar to those painted by Vermeer:
"'Though I have never been inside a Catholic church,' I began slowly, 'I think that if I saw a painting there, it would be like yours.'" (p. 149 'Girl With A Pearl Earring')
Griet's growing infatuation with Vermeer has softened her view of Catholics.
Although Griet is used to doing housework, she is not used to cleaning for such a large household - her new mistress Catharina is a stereotypical Catholic with many children and no desire to stop procreating. The work is physically demanding, leaving Griet exhausted with red, cracked hands, and the environment in which she is living and working is hostile. From the beginning Griet senses that she will be challenged by her mistress, the cook, Tanneke, who is a loyal servant and senior to Griet, and Cornelia, the daughter who is most like Catherina in nature:
"'Yes, you will be a handful,' I murmured." (p. 23 'The Girl With A Pearl Earring')
Catherina is very short with Griet and suspicious of her, while Tanneke is prone to mood swings. Cornelia however is Griet's greatest opponent for she is sly, cunning, stubborn and spiteful. She is always looking for ways to upset Griet, either by being naughty, breaking Griet's few belongings on trying to get Griet in trouble with her mother.
It is not all doom and gloom for Griet as she has allies in the form of Maria Thins, her mistress' mother; her master, Vermeer who is quiet by nature but admires Griet's eye for detail; and the butcher's son Pieter. Maria Thins likes Griet because she recognises her hard work:
"… usually I was left alone to my work. This may have been Maria Thins' influence. She has decided, for her own reasons, that I was a useful addition…" (p. 51 'Girl With A Pearl Earring')
The sheets are much whiter upon Griet's arrival and her work cleaning the studio much aids Vermeer, enabling him to paint more efficiently. Everything Maria Thins does appears to be driven by financial gain. Although Vermeer himself appears to be ignoring Griet when she first arrives, he soon chooses her to run his errands and help him to produce his paint. It might not seem much but this is an honour from a man who does not trust his own wife to enter his studio. It is during these long quiet hours that Griet's admiration for Vermeer as a painter grows into something more.
In comparison, Pieter the butcher's son, who is both eager and handsome, pursues Griet. He pays her a lot of attention, which she is not accustomed to. Eventually Griet gives in to Pieter's advances and they spend stolen moments kissing and fondling in the alleyways of Delft. These moments are rough and rushed and lack the sensuousness of the time Griet spends in the studio with Vermeer:
"Sometimes we stood side by side in the small room, me grinding white lead, him washing lapis or burning ochres in the fire. He said little to me. He was a quiet man. I did not speak either. It was peaceful then, with the light coming in through the window. When we were done we poured water from a pitcher over each other's hands and scrubbed ourselves clean." (p. 115 'Girl With A Pearl Earring')
Admiring the beautiful colours in his paintings provoke far more intense sensations than any encounter with Pieter, even when she finally allows him to have sex with her.
Ultimately the reader can guess that Griet will not always be welcome in the Vermeer household. She is forever forced to sneak around, trying to hide from her mistress that she is helping Vermeer with his paintings or going out "on errands" to avoid Vermeer's randy patron van Ruijven and his wandering hands. It is ironic that the one truly sensual scene occurs without any sex but the mere suggestion of it and Griet's secret longing for it.
The first three parts of the book describe 1664, 1665 and 1666 before moving swiftly onto 1676 in the final chapter after Griet is forced to leave the Vermeer household. I read on hungrily to find out what decision Griet made and it was as I expected.
Griet is perhaps not the most rounded character but I think that is more an indication of her status and the times she was living in. It emphasises her powerlessness and her lack of options. I felt real empathy for her, all the while willing her to make the right decisions.
Vermeer is depicted as quite selfish and spineless. He seems to be forced into doing whatever van Ruijven wants painted and whatever Maria Thins thinks will bring them money. Likewise, he rarely stands up to his wife Catherina, letting her do almost anything she wants apart from entering his studio. However, I think Vermeer genuinely cared for Griet as he did not want van Ruijven to get his filthy hands on her and something he leaves for Griet at the end of the book proves that she remained on his mind.
'Girl With A Pearl Earring' was written by Tracy Chevalier, an American writer who came to live in England in 1984. She was inspired to write 'Girl With A Pearl Earring' by her poster of the painting and conjured up the whole story within three days and then took only nine months to write the whole book. The story is fictional but many people have wondered who the mysterious girl with a pearl earring is.
Johannes Vermeer was a real artist, born in Delft in 1632, his wife was called Catherina and his mother-in-law Maria Thins. They also lived in the Oude Langendijk, or Papists' corner as it is known to Griet. Whether they had a maid called Griet I do not know. Tracy Chevalier cleverly included names of Vermeer's famous paintings into the books, making it seem more of an historical account than a historical fiction.
Overall it was a thoroughly interesting book, whether you're a fan of the art of Vermeer or not. I'm not really into art but I didn't find the descriptions of the paintings at all boring, far from it. Chevalier describes the paintings vividly and the undercurrent of a love story is also very involving. I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading.
I bought my copy from Amazon.co.uk for £5.59 (RRP £6.99) but you can get it from all good booksellers.