Wholly ignorant of Johannes Vermeer, the Dutch Golden Age and art in general, I began Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring unaware that I was lucky to have happened upon the 2000 paperback edition. Unlike the 2006 reedition and any e-reader version, the 2000 cover shows the eponymous painting in all its stark and chapped splendour, with Vermeer’s View of Delft acting as a support structure and subplot. As you approach the climax of this intriguing novel, you’ll find yourself flipping to the cover to spot the growing details: “the blue cloth over my forehead, with the yellow piece wound round and round, covering the crown of my head”; “Black, ochre, lead white, lead-tin yellow, ultramarine, red lake”; “a wisp of hair peeking out from the blue cloth under my left eye”. Every brush stroke is dangerous, for a servant has no right to enjoy such intimacy with the master of the house, much less to wear pearl earrings.
Though in reality Vermeer’s painting of his home town is almost twice the size of the famous tronie that inspired Chevalier’s wonderful novel, the 2000 cover of Girl With a Pearl Earring reflects the reality of the story. Griet (pronounced ‘greet’), Vermeer’s pale and beautiful servant-cum-model, is bigger than Delft: smarter and more capable than most of its menfolk, with a mind that wonders far beyond its narrow streets, she doesn’t lower herself to the market gossip of so many of the town’s women, nor to the bigotry of its rival sects. A Protestant, Griet is at first reluctant to serve in Vermeer’s Catholic household; but with her father blinded by a kiln explosion, her resourceful mother eking out all she can and her foolhardy brother engaged in costly mischief, Griet is the only thing keeping the wolves from her family’s door. From the moment Vermeer spots the 16-year-old sorting vegetables by colour, he knows that she will become much more than just another maid.
Martin Amis writes that one can judge the strength of a novelist by how much thought he or she gives to a character’s name. Like the painting in question, ‘Griet’ contains several layers of suggestion. It stems from ‘Margriet,’ a common Dutch first name that means, funnily enough, ‘pearl.’ Though now somewhat out-dated as a name, as a noun ‘griet’ can mean ‘daisy’ and (less so nowadays) function as a derogatory word for a young lady (the British equivalent would be ‘bird’). Griet is as fair as the former and tries very hard not to live up to the latter. “I could not show him my hair,” she says during one of her first sittings with Vermeer. “I was not the sort of girl who left her head bare.”
This might come as a shock to Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom (PVV), currently the fourth largest political party in Holland, who want to protect Dutch culture and heritage by, amongst other things, imposing a tax on headscarves. Griet would certainly not approve. Like many Muslim women today, she regards the covering of her hair as a sign of chastity. Or, if you prefer, to leave her hair uncovered would be to make a statement of lascivious intent. In certain dark alleys of Delft there are women who show much more than just “a wisp” of their blonde and brown locks. Griet does not want to become one of them. As she approaches her eighteenth birthday, though, and as the Vermeer family groans under the weight of children and debt, Griet knows that both her master and her suitor, the local butcher’s son, are growing impatient for that momentous unveiling and the rewards it will bring.
To show hair is one thing, but for a maid like Griet to reveal her ear, adorned with a pearl earring, and then open her mouth ever so slightly is improbably scandalous. How, then, does Vermeer coax his young servant to pierce her lobe and part her lips just so? Well, that is the heart of the story.
And what a story it is. The novel is 248 pages long but felt like barely a hundred; I read it in about four sittings. The characters are superb and the descriptions of quotidian struggle rich. Chevalier’s writing (again, like the painting) is deceptively simple; light yet nuanced. My one criticism is that while she very skilfully employs this technique in the most powerful scenes, Chevalier just occasionally adds an unnecessary dab during less dramatic turns.
Oh, there’s also the film. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Holes, The Fault In Our Stars, Anna Karenina: to this list of great books that have been snatched by a film director and stuck in a red dress we can add Girl With a Pearl Earring.
One of the most artful aspects of the book is the understated, at times almost indiscernible sexual tension that Chevalier creates between painter and model. The author must have known that a Hollywood director would take these delicate scenes and redraw them at a rakish angle – even before Scarlett Johansson had been cast as Griet.
I mentioned earlier how shocking it is for Griet to have to pose with her mouth open and how hard Vermeer has to work to persuade her to do so. Ms Johansson rather undermines the power of this image by leaving her mouth half agape in nearly every scene (‘quizzical stare’ is her other stock expression). Furthermore, with those full, pouting lips she looks, as Christopher Hitchens said of Paul Henreid in Casablanca, a little too sleek and well-fed for the role, not to say too well moistened. Study the mouth in the painting and you’ll notice a flake of dry skin on the corner. In the book, Griet often describes how worn and dry her hands have become from the endless laundry. The rest of her skin would have been similarly weathered. In the movie poster, by contrast, one could remove the wording (and the ridiculous Mr Firth, to whom I am coming) and easily recast it as an advert for lip voltage. (To be fair, Ms Johansson did dye her eyebrows for the role: what a sacrifice that must have been.)
Then there is Colin Firth as Vermeer (stock look: ‘vexed’) thrusting his pointed nose into that smooth, moist cheek and delicately placing a hand on his servant’s shoulder. For those who have seen the film and expect the book to be a slightly more intellectual version of 50 Shades of Grey, let me spoil things for you. The poster is absurd, as are the scenes in the film that mirror it. Whereas in the book the tenderness between Vermeer and Griet grows as carefully as a daisy, in the film these moments have all the subtlety of an earthquake.
In short, the film is a travesty and the book is a joy.