Set in the Gilded Age of the 1890s through the beginning of the 20th century, Clara and Mr. Tiffany, by Susan Vreeland, paints a not always pretty picture of New Yorkers’ lives during one of the city’s most bustling periods. These were the days when the Statue of Liberty was new, thousands of hopeful European immigrants crowded into slums, and, for a few talented and lucky young women, there was a chance to be independent and earn good wages at Mr. Tiffany’s stained glass studio.
Forthright Clara Driscoll arrived at Mr. Tiffany’s office wanting her old job back. Since her husband had died, she qualified to work again as Mr. Tiffany allowed no married women to be a part of his stained glass factory. Put in charge of the Women’s Department, Clara designs and her fellow workers execute some of the most innovative and challenging glassworks.
Charles Comfort Tiffany, son of the famous jeweler, has something to prove to his father about the importance of beauty and believes his designers should be surrounded by it and create more of it so that such joys can be a part of middle class homes. Clocks, lamps, and even candlesticks get the Tiffany touch.
Clara finds her work challenging and invigorating. Tiffany supports her elaborate and often expensive designs even if his business managers do not. It is almost enough to fill her whole life. Then she meets Edwin, the fiery reformer who has given his life to helping the downtrodden find their way and stand up for their rights in their new country.
In many ways Clara and Edwin are kindred spirits, but to join him, she would have to give up everything else she loves and has worked for. And Edwin is not the only man whose company gives her great joy. Standing head and shoulders above them, for all of his short frame, is Louis Comfort Tiffany—genius, autocrat, and artistic collaborator.
Clara and Mr. Tiffany’s dialogue and points of view often seem far more relaxed and modern than what might have been said or held at the time—but that might have been done to suit modern tastes. However, this is not a complete work of fiction. It is based on a cache of Clara’s letters that were found only recently that showed how very important she was to some of Tiffany’s most famous and award-winning designs. Indeed her contributions (and those of the other “Tiffany Girls”) have been recognized by historians and museums, inspiring an exhibit and non-fiction book, A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls.
However, the novel’s emotional and artistic themes blend very well together and illuminate an important time of our country’s struggles, hopefulness, and success. It would be a good choice for a book club that enjoys historical fiction, and a readers’ guide is included. Available in print, on audio, and as an eBook. Check author Susan Vreeland's website for additional history and background for this book and more on her other writings, most of which are also set in the worlds of art and artisans.