Tracy Chevalier feels lucky. Not because her novel Girl With a Pearl Earring has sold one million copies and is still making the bestseller lists. Not because she has just released her new novel Falling Angels. She feels lucky because she lives in the modern era. "I'm incredibly thankful to be born when I was," says the author. "It's only relatively recently women have more choice. I have opportunities even my mother didn't have."
Chevalier's novels show just how far women have come. The author set Girl With a Pearl Earring in 17th century Holland and gave her narrator, Griet, a true artist's passion and eye. Born to a lower class family, the best Griet can do is work as a housemaid to the artist Vermeer. The new book, Falling Angels, takes place in Edwardian London and tells the story of Kitty Coleman, a young wife and mother. Chafing against her role as matron, Kitty thwarts convention — and her family's wishes — by becoming a suffragette.
"Since I write about women in the past, they're invariably going to be circumscribed by circumstance," says Chevalier, speaking from her home in North London. "There's going to be a conflict with them wanting to have a life different from what they have."
Griet from Girl With a Pearl Earring manages this conflict by quiet subversion. She cleans Vermeer's study but over time comes to influence his art as well. She plays a part in the creation of a masterpiece, but still, she is aware as a young woman and a maid that her role is restricted. "People ask why Griet couldn't have gone off to become a painter. Well, that wasn't how it was," says Chevalier. "What women could do was very limited then. I chose a realistic ending, not a romantic ending."
While Griet operates within the narrow social avenues open to her, Falling Angels' Kitty Coleman actively defies them. The book opens in London, in January 1901, after the death of Queen Victoria. "That's when attitudes changed," says Chevalier. With Victoria's death, some of the previous era's confining notions about societal roles began at last to give way — good news for Kitty.
"For the first time in my life I have something to do," Kitty says of her stance as a suffragette. She takes up her mission with a convert's zeal but not everyone in her life is as enthusiastic. Her husband and daughter feel dismayed and abandoned, her stuffy mother-in-law is apoplectic and their upright neighbors, the Waterhouse family, are mortified. By telling the story through multiple points of view, Chevalier makes sure everyone gets a say, particularly Kitty's daughter Maude and Maude's best friend, Lavinia Waterhouse.
Maude and Lavinia begin their friendship in a cemetery, which Chevalier bases on historic Highgate Cemetery near her home. "It's this grandiose place, all Gothic excess," says the author. "It's Victorian, overgrown with ivy, the graves are tumbling down." The cemetery in the book becomes a recurring symbol, the site of beginnings as well as endings.
Kitty, the central character in Falling Angels, is headstrong and impulsive, more of a rebel than the author herself admits to being. "When I was 19, I went to Oberlin and went around everywhere saying I was a feminist. I used to make all sorts of pronouncements [like] 'Men and women [are] absolutely equal.' Now I'm 38 and married with a kid and I understand how things aren't equal," she says. "I'm not sure I could call myself a feminist. I'm much more wary of labels than I used to be."
One label she does not mind owning up to is that of outsider. "I'm comfortable with that," says Chevalier, who was born in Washington, D.C., and has lived in London since 1983. Chevalier came to London after college for a visit, took a job in publishing and stayed. She's since acquired a husband and a son, not to mention a reputation as a novelist who articulates the way women negotiate the demands of society.
Though she hasn't picked up an English accent, she has embraced what she considers an English sensibility. "At first that English buttoned-up-ness bothered me, but now I find I don't always trust American emotionalism. It feels overdone."
Even the English have been effusive about Girl With a Pearl Earring, though, and the book's success still takes the author by surprise. "When I see my name in the paper, I somehow think they're referring to some other Tracy Chevalier." It also puts her under pressure. "People wanted this book to be Girl Part II, but I didn't want to be boxed into that," says Chevalier, who confesses Falling Angels "was a hellish book to write. I wrote the first draft in third person. It was like a lead balloon. I read the first draft and cried. I wanted to throw it away."
She turned to the work of another author and found a way out. "I read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. She did such a fantastic job using different voices and I thought, with Falling Angels, I've told it in the wrong way. I wanted it to have lots of perspective."
After wrestling with the initial draft for a year and a half, the rewrite went swiftly, blissfully. "I rewrote 90 percent and it became a great pleasure. When you carry a story around in your head for a couple of years, it's like knowing your own family's stories; they just stay there. It gets easier," says Chevalier, who's already tackling her next novel, a return to the past, to art and of course, to women, all of which come together with the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. These rich medieval tapestries are displayed at the Cluny Museum in Paris, just a Chunnel ride away from London. And Chevalier will probably tack up a poster of them in her office to inspire her as she writes, the way she did with Vermeer images while working on her previous novel.
"I'm no art historian. I'm not a social historian. I write about things that interest me," Chevalier says. "I feel comfortable looking into things I don't know too much about. I want to learn."
Like women around the world, the author says she struggles to balance the demands of career and family. "I love my son, but my time for writing is broken up into little bits," she says. But still, she counts her blessings. "I'm in the perfect occupation. And think of Kitty in Falling Angels, how frustrated she was trying to achieve independence. I live in a world more open. I feel privileged."
Ellen Kanner is a writer in Miami.