Monday, May 14, 2012

Clara and Mr Tiffany by Susan Vreeland

Clara Driscoll is not a name that most of us would recognise. Talk about Tiffany's and their lamps we would likely be much more familiar, and yet the two have now been inextricably linked through the discovery of some letters from Driscoll. Vreeland has taken what little we know about Clara and shaped a story that is filled with fascinating details about not only Clara but also about glass-making, selection of colours and the creation of many beautiful objects of art.

Clara is the central character in this book which is not only about how the iconic lamps came into being, but also about life in New York at the turn of the century and social change. There are plenty of historic milestones that are touched on, including the first time that the ball dropped at Times Square on New Year's Eve, the building of the Flatiron Building and the opening of the underground train systems amongst others.

The book opens with the recently widowed Clara Driscoll returning to work for Louis Comfort Tiffany. She had worked for him previously, but he has a very strict policy that none of the women that work for him can be married, no matter who they are, what role they perform - no exceptions.

Whilst Clara chafes a little at the injustice of this rule, she is aware that very few of the other glass makers actually employ women at all, and she is so relieved to be back at work, she is prepared to work under those restrictions.

Gradually Clara is able to pick and choose the girls who will make up her team, many of them young immigrant girls, and they are set to work on many of the challenging designs that Mr Tiffany wants whether to fulfil orders for customers or for the various big exhibitions including the Chicago World Fair.

Image from Wikipedia
Along the journey, Mr Tiffany encourages Clara in many of her designs, despite the impediments that many of the money men of the company put in her way. What he doesn't do though, is openly acknowledge his designers, not only Clara, but the others as well. This lack of recognition is something that she struggles with because whilst she does want that, she also loves her job, loves designing, and loves the process of making the complicated glass pieces. There are also challenges with the men who work for Mr Tiffany. The women are not allowed to join the union, and there are times when the men seek to stop the women from "taking their jobs".

Outside of work, Clara lives in a share house with many other artistic types and so we get a glimpse inside the lives of these people. Through them, she meets the men who shape her personal life. There is Edwin who will in time become her fiance as well as Bernard who plays an important role in her life. All the time though, the men in her life have to compete with her passion for her work.

There are times at the beginning of the book where the technical details of the production is a bit overwhelming, but once you get past that initial part, the story just flows. This isn't the first Vreeland I have read, and like the others, the author shows considerable skill in bringing the colours and images to life within the text.

On page 229, one of Clara's friends says the following;

"The butterflies, the fish and the dragonflies. Stunning, Clara. Your lamps will last through the ages, and will come to be valued as treasures from our time, worth far more than you can imagine now. I know this. I'm an importer."

Hearing that, I felt my spirit soar. I didn't breathe until his velvet voice came through the semidarkness again.

"Someday, when women are considered equal to men, it will become known that a woman of great importance created those lamps. This isn't the Middle Ages, Clara. You will not be lost to history like the makes of those medieval windows in Gloucester are. Someone will find you."

In the author note, Vreeland talks about the exhibition that she went to see that inspired her to write about Clara. You can't help but feel that this book is another step in finding Clara Driscoll.

Rating 4/5

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Clara and Mr. Tiffany on

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Against the unforgettable backdrop of New York near the turn of the twentieth century, from the Gilded Age world of formal balls and opera to the immigrant poverty of the Lower East Side, bestselling author Susan Vreeland again breathes life into a work of art in this extraordinary novel, which brings a woman once lost in the shadows into vivid color.

It’s 1893, and at the Chicago World’s Fair, Louis Comfort Tiffany makes his debut with a luminous exhibition of innovative stained-glass windows, which he hopes will honor his family business and earn him a place on the international artistic stage. But behind the scenes in his New York studio is the freethinking Clara Driscoll, head of his women’s division. Publicly unrecognized by Tiffany, Clara conceives of and designs nearly all of the iconic leaded-glass lamps for which he is long remembered.

Clara struggles with her desire for artistic recognition and the seemingly insurmountable challenges that she faces as a professional woman, which ultimately force her to protest against the company she has worked so hard to cultivate. She also yearns for love and companionship, and is devoted in different ways to five men, including Tiffany, who enforces to a strict policy: he does not hire married women, and any who do marry while under his employ must resign immediately. Eventually, like many women, Clara must decide what makes her happiest—the professional world of her hands or the personal world of her heart.
Cross posted at Historical Tapestry

Edited to add: We are giving away a copy of this book at Historical Tapestry! Head over to read Susan Vreeland's guest post and  comment for your chance to win!


  1. Sandy loved this book, and told me that I would too, but now that I have read your review, I think I am going to actively seek it out and see what I think. It sounds like such a complex story, and also one that I would love. This was a great review. I enjoyed reading your take on it.

    1. We are giving a copy of it away at HT at the moment Heather if you are interested.

  2. Very interesting! It looks really good. I'll definitely have to find this for my summer travel reading, I think.

    1. Hope you enjoy it if you do read it Pam!

  3. I've been very intrigued by this book because of the cover-it was featured at my library and I kept seeing the cover but always having too many other books to check out. I think I should make it more of a priority to read this.

    1. The covers for both the hardback and the paperback are absolutely gorgeous!

  4. I love the cover of this book and I really like Tiffany lamps :-) I don't know if I would love the book, but the premise does sound interesting.

    1. It's always interesting to find out something more about things like Tiffany lamps!

  5. This one looks interesting--love the cover, too.

  6. I can't believe I haven't read this one yet. I own it but haven't actually read it. Sounds so good.

  7. I checked out my library, Marg, and they do have this book so I'll be able to catch up with it in due course. (I won't reserve it now because it is sure to become available when I'm away.) Thaks for the recommendation, I do like Vreeland's novels!