J.B. Cheaney is the author of The Playmaker and The True Prince. Her third novel, Hazel Anderson’s War, will be published in late 2004.
Tracy Chevalier returns with a novel centered on the weaving of the unicorn tapestries.
New York: E.P. Dutton, 2003
256 pp., $23.95
In The Lady and the Unicorn, novelist Tracy Chevalier returns to the device that made her widely acclaimed Girl With a Pearl Earring a striking success: a cross-pollination of visual and literary art. Again she leads us by the hand into the production of a masterpiece, taking apart the colors, textures, and composition and reconstructing them into a portrait of longing.
Girl With a Pearl Earring imagines the story of Griet, a craftsman’s daughter of seventeenth-century Delft. When her father is blinded and family fortunes dwindle, Griet enters the household of Jan Vermeer as a maid. There she catches the painter’s attention and eventually becomes the model for one of Vermeer’s best-known works. The novel is as quiet, on the surface, as the painting. What makes it work is the same understated tension that makes the portrait glow.
The Lady and the Unicorn also tells the story behind a masterpiece: the tapestry of the title, or rather a set of tapestries commissioned to deck the grand salon of a wealthy man’s house. The actual tapestries, now displayed in Paris’ Musee National du Moyen Age, can be traced to the family of Jean Le Viste, who rose to prominence in fifteenth-century France. Their construction is imagined by the author, who pushes aside the exquisitely woven surface to examine the untidy lives beneath.
Weaving the six tapestries
Tapestry making of the period was a group project; since many hands went into the finished product, many voices contribute to the narrative. The plot shuttles between two families in two cities. First, Paris, where the society painter Nicolas des Innocents is chosen to design and paint preliminary studies. His patron Le Viste wants a glorified depiction of the Battle of Nancy, as a way to ingratiate himself further at court and suggest his influence on the king. Le Viste’s wife, Genevieve, has another theme in mind, which her husband (with suspicious ease) is persuaded to adopt. From that point on, the men drive the work but the women inspire and indwell it.
It’s a momentous time for Europe: France only recently united under the “Spider King” Louis XI; the Tudor dynasty established in England; Castile and Arragon joined to form modern Spain. Christopher Columbus is seeking a financier for his bold plan for reaching the Indies, and movable type is creating the world’s first literate generation. None of these events disturb the narrative; it’s a story of interior walls and enclosed gardens, feminine to the core.
Lady Genevieve’s proposal for the tapestries is “The Seduction of the Unicorn,” portrayed in six stages. Seduction is in the air; her fourteen-year-old daughter Claude is a ripening plum all too ready to fall into the hands of the handsome painter. Nicolas is a shameless womanizer but with an artist’s sensitivity–it turns out that Genevieve herself has chosen him for the design work because, to her at least, his portraits of women capture “their spiritual nature.” Capitalizing on her insight, Nicolas decides that the tapestries will be about “the whole of a woman’s life, its beginning and end. All of her choices, all in one, wound together. That is what I would do.” Genevieve and Claude present two sides of womanhood to him, the spiritual and the sensual.
In Brussels, a center of medieval tapestry weaving, Nicolas finds a craftsman capable of executing his designs. Though the pay offered by Le Viste is barely adequate and the time allotment is too tight for comfort, Georges de la Chapelle is encouraged by his wife. Christine, to take the job: “It will be the making of you.” Philippe de la Tour, a painter and draftsman, is hired to enlarge the designs for weaving. Countless details go into the project, even before the actual work begins: contracting with dyers and wool spinners, laying in a supply of thread and ensuring that the dye lots remain consistent, hiring extra craftsmen to weave a fashionable millefleur background of flowers and animals. As Christine and her daughter Alienor keep the household running and participate in the preliminary work, Nicolas begins to appreciate them as two more sides to womanhood: the practical wife and the vulnerable virgin. They also will find a place in his design.
The “Seduction,” as presented in the tapestries, begins with a panel titled Mon Seul Desir (“my one desire“) and proceeds through the five senses. All four women will find themselves idealized on the canvas, but in life they are portraits of frustrated desire. Genevieve longs to escape her unhappy marriage and difficult child by entering a convent. High-spirited Claude aches, as she artlessly puts it, “for an answer to my body’s question” and resents the value put on her virginity by the marriage market. Christine, a weaver’s daughter and wife, chafes at guild rules that keep her from becoming a weaver herself. Alienor desires nothing more than to stay where she is, tending her garden and making herself useful, but circumstances are forcing her toward marriage with a man she detests.
It’s a man’s world, but the men don’t fare much better. Nicolas feeds his lusts but starves his soul, Georges’ ambition clashes with his security, Philippe is so shy he can’t even reach for modest dreams, and Le Viste, though rich and powerful, is cold and shallow. All expect to gain in reputation or prestige from the project, but only Le Viste gets exactly what he paid for: a set of six tapestries. The others receive both more and less, an ambivalence personified in Nicolas. By the end of the story he recognizes himself as the unicorn, thoroughly seduced by daughters and mothers, lovers and wives: The ladies “were all of them beautiful, peaceful, content. To stand among them was to be part of their magical, blessed lives.” They are his creation but also his snare.
Match of story and device
The peculiar grace of this story is the way it is told. One of the greatest challenges for a historical novelist is revealing period detail; with a less skillful writer, one frequently hears the clunk of textbook prose dropped into the narrative. The literal ins and outs of tapestry production make Chevalier’s job even more difficult, for it involves mechanics and techniques that have all but disappeared. Even modern weaving is not easily explained without diagrams. Chevalier succeeds not merely in explaining the process but in working it into the warp and weft of her story. Weaving metaphors abound: the complex business of gathering, dyeing, and evaluating thread perfectly represents the disparate details that make up the fabric of life. Christine describes how warp threads are strung on the loom by reflecting, “I think of them as like wives. Their work is not obvious. All you can see are the ridges they make under the colorful weft threads. But if they weren’t there, there would be no tapestry. Georges would unravel without me.”
Chevalier makes striking use of the practice of weaving tapestries from the back, so that their harmony of color and design can’t be appreciated until the finished work is cut off the loom and turned over. In just that way, we observe the knots and splices of individual characters feeding into the production but don’t see the product until it’s trimmed and hemmed and hanging in the house of Jean Le Viste. Then for a moment we become museum curators of history, seeing the tapestry of the past as a seamless work rather than a disjointed process. The conflicts of desire and duty, spirit and flesh–and particularly men and women–are woven into a work of art, giving it life but hiding the loose ends. The match of story and device is flawless.
But the novel’s greatest strength is also a weakness. Employing so many voices in such a slim volume, Chevalier can’t give much depth to any of them. Instead of one strong and consistent point of view, we get several. The overall effect is curiously flat, with the same lack of depth perception typical of medieval artwork. The texture is rich in detail, but somehow the details don’t add up to as much as they promise.
This is a flaw that could have been overcome, perhaps, with a strong central conflict. Most of the dramatic tension stems from individual conflicts between mother and daughter, husband and wife, man and maid. These are enough to keep the story moving but not enough to compel it. The sense of “narrative imperative,” of a strong undercurrent that catches up the individual conflicts and carries them to a conclusion, is lacking. The main engine of the plot turns out to be Jean Le Viste’s demand to have the tapestries completed by Candlemas, so he can use them as backdrop for a sumptuous banquet celebrating a major court appointment.
Great art is often driven by prosaic concerns, such as Shakespeare’s desire to pack the Globe and Mozart’s tossing out musical masterpieces to keep one step ahead of his creditors. That may even be the author’s point. But as a nerve center for a novel, it falls short. The disparate stories converge, ultimately, in a static pattern. We’re fascinated by the details, the layering, the nuts and bolts of construction, but the finished product is not likely to hold us for long. Like the serene face of the idealized medieval lady, it shuts us out. We are not quite seduced, after all. “I thought I had been very clever,” Nicolas confesses at the end, “but my cleverness had tripped me up.”
It may be too much to say that the novelist’s cleverness has tripped her up, because The Lady and the Unicorn succeeds as historical fiction, character study, and good old-fashioned storytelling. But probably not as an enduring work of art, unlike the tapestries it celebrates.
Cheaney, J. B.