Tracy Chevalier's novel Girl with a Pearl Earring, the story of a Dutch servant girl in the household of the artist Jan Vermeer, has a rare quality. Readers feel a personal relationship to it, a sense of private discovery which makes it one of the best-loved books on the shelf. Now it has received the ultimate historical accolade: a film starring Colin Firth. Chevalier has seen a preview, and thoroughly approves.
Chevalier followed Girl with a Pearl Earring with Falling Angels, which had less strong visual content and more social history, focusing on two elaborate tombs in a Victorian cemetery, where the members of a progressive and slightly bohemian family are interred next to those of a rigidly conventional household still locked in the past. The story is a multiple narrative told through 12 voices, mainly those of the women. Her new book The Lady and the Unicorn moves back again to the art world, embracing not only the enclosed world of the artist but social and practical aspects of craft production. But it was Girl, a demotic fictional history which gave life to the humblest of servants, that brought her initial literary recognition and popular success.
That novel was a true "word-of-mouth" bestseller, recommended by one reader to another until it worked its way up to become a hot and buzzing title. PR skills in the book trade can ensure so much orchestration that an apparently "unpromoted" book is thrust before the public at every turn, so the author of a really spontaneous success is a rare bird. "It's the best kind of success to have," says Chevalier, "a very genuine response to a book, not led by marketing or advertising. I love that." But how did she adjust from being a modest graduate of the creative-writing MA course at the University of East Anglia to international fame in fiction?
"It took a long time to realise that it was a success. I was able to take that on board, it gave me the chance to acclimatise to it a bit. Also it's a genuine love for the book - not much to do with me - which means I can retain some privacy."
Tracy Chevalier has certainly defied part of the usual book-sales hype, whereby the author has to become a self-promoting celebrity. She still lives quietly in north London, where she arrived as a young American almost 18 years ago. After completing the course at East Anglia, where Rose Tremain and Malcolm Bradbury were among her teachers, she remained in Britain, married an Englishman, and now has a young son at school here. "He has an English accent and often corrects my accent. In the bath he plays submarines and Thunderbirds and he'll put on an American accent."
For someone with an intense visual awareness, she claims not to be particularly artistic, but she must have a good eye. Her father was a photographer and her house is full of discreet works of art. They are modern in taste, though for many readers Chevalier's greatest virtue is her skill at recreating the past. Indeed, the success of Girl with a Pearl Earring was probably one of the leading factors in re-establishing the historical novel, which the conventional wisdom of publishing had almost abandoned. Why has there been this revival of a neglected genre? I asked her if she thought it was escapism.
"We escape in other ways - with action films and ChickLit. I'm surprised that I'm writing historical fiction because I'm not a historian by nature - though I like escaping into the past because I can leave my contemporary life behind. It's very easy to leave what my own world is doing behind.
"I think maybe people are looking for something more from books. Maybe reading historical novels gives you something to learn as well. A lot of people, especially men, write to me and say, "I don't usually read novels but my wife told me to read Girl with a Pearl Earring and to my great surprise I really liked it because I learned a lot about Dutch society and how to paint.'"
Is she repelled by the modern world? "Sometimes, yes. Having said that, until relatively recently people led very hard lives and I appreciate the fact that I don't. When I had my son there were some complications and I had to have a Caesarean. I could easily have died, if it had been 100 years ago. As it was, everything was fine. So I don't necessarily want to escape the modern world, though there are a lot of things about it I find very frustrating and a bit scary.
"I do feel it's accelerating so fast that I can't figure out what's going to happen to us. My son is at that age where he's asking a lot about infinity and God, and he keeps asking about the end of the world. He asked, 'Mummy, when is the world going to end. It can't go on for ever, can it?' I said, 'I don't know, it's a question I can't answer,' and thought to myself, 'There's something in me that feels that the world can't go on, and eventually something is going to give, because we're using up everything.' So that part of the modern world does make me feel very sad and I think it's a lot easier to look back."
Does she enjoy the research for a historical novel? "I like it because I learn a lot. It makes me feel I am filling in gaps. They say, 'write about what you know,' but I totally disagree with that. Write about what you're interested in and what you'd like to know about, because writing a novel is a long experience and it can be very gruelling and boring at times. I want something that keeps me occupied and interested."
What has been keeping Chevalier occupied recently is the background to her latest novel, The Lady and The Unicorn (HarperCollins, £15), based on the set of late-15th-century tapestries now in the Musée de Cluny, Paris. Little is known about their original history, and Chevalier's book fictionally reconstructs the creation of these complex works of art, with multiple narratives told from the viewpoints of the main characters.
A nobleman, Jean le Viste, has commissioned a Parisian artist, Nicolas des Innocents, to design the tapestries, which are to be woven in a Brussels workshop. Nicolas gets wildly distracted by Jean's beautiful daughter, Claude, and their mutual passion, helped and hindered by parents, servants and craftsmen, is the underlying story of the book. Along the way, the reader painlessly absorbs information about the technicalities of tapestry-making and the details of a weaver's workshop where procedure was strictly controlled by guilds. Only men were allowed to take part in the actual work; the women were relegated to supporting roles, which does not please one of the book's strong female characters.
The tapestries depict the legend that a virgin can capture a unicorn, which will come to lay its head peaceably in her lap, but they are also rich in layers of symbolic meaning. Five of them (reproduced on the end-papers and dust jacket) show scenes that seem to come from a semi-magical world. A richly dressed woman takes a necklace from a treasure chest, holds a wreath of flowers, shows the unicorn its reflection in a mirror, leads it by the horn.
"The tapestries are about the seduction of the unicorn by the lady," says Chevalier, "but they are also about the five senses. Or are they also about the lady saying goodbye to the senses as she embraces the spiritual life? Is she putting on the necklace when she's about to go off and seduce some being, a man or the unicorn, so is she at the beginning of her sexual life? Or is she taking off the necklace and renouncing the senses? So the book is very much about the different ages of womanhood. Claude le Viste is very young, but her mother has come to the end of her sexual life."
Is she working on another book with an artistic setting? "The next book is going to be about William Blake. It's about the people who live around him and see and hear what he is doing and how that intellectual and aesthetic radicalism affects them ... Blake and his wife Catherine used to sit in the back garden and read poetry to each other naked."
How does she go about the business of creating convincing first-person narratives for long-dead characters? "I try not to let too many modernisms creep in," she replies. "One way of getting round that is to make the words very spare. By doing that it's very much about describing a person physically, and what they're surrounded by, and they are grounded in the everyday and surrounded by the different senses."
The sumptuous nature of her fictional interiors - the furnishings of 17th-century Delft, the brocades of medieval noblewomen - are not reflected in Chevalier's personal taste. I ask about the small but elegant studs in her ears. There's an American forthrightness about her reply. "They're from Milwaukee Art Museum, bought on a book tour. I don't wear pearl earrings very much. I'm just not a pearls girl!"
Tracy Chevalier grew up in Washington DC, the daughter of a photographer. She moved to Britain in 1984, worked as a reference-book editor and studied at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, graduating from the MA course in creative writing in 1994. She is the author of three historical novels set in different periods, The Virgin Blue, Girl with a Pearl Earring and Falling Angels. Her latest book, The Lady and the Unicorn, is published this week by HarperCollins. Set in Paris and Brussels in the late 15th century, it tells the story, in fictional form, of the creation of a sequence of tapestries now displayed in the Musée de Cluny, Paris. The film of Girl with a Pearl Earring, starring Colin Firth as the artist Vermeer and Scarlett Johansson as Griet the servant girl, opens in November. Tracy Chevalier is married with a son and now lives in north London.Reuse content