The Music Lesson, by Katharine Weber, New York, Crown Publishers, 1998; 178 pages, $21 hardcover. - Review - book review

The Music Lesson, by Katharine Weber, New York, Crown Publishers, 1998; 178 pages, $21 hardcover. - Review - book reviewThe Music Lesson, by Katharine Weber, New York, Crown Publishers, 1998; 178 pages, $21 hardcover.

Five novels and an opera, all recently released, attest to an ongoing popular fascination with--and mistaken view of--Vermeer and his historic Dutch context.

Reading in succession five recent novels that draw on the art world of 17th-century Holland (and seeing an opera set in the same milieu) is an all too revealing experience. Four of the books introduce a female protagonist into the studio of a male artist devoted to painting genre scenes, especially pictures of intriguing women. The women sit for the painters as models, and here is what happens to them:

Behind his easel the painter is watching me. His blue eyes bore into my soul. He is a small, wiry man with wild black hair. His head is cocked to one side. I stare back at him coolly. Then I realize--he is not looking at me. He is looking at an arrangement to be painted. He wipes his brush on a rag and frowns. I am just an object--brown hair, white lace collar and blue, shot-silk dress. (Deborah Moggach, Tulip Fever)

Her chest ached like a dull wound when she realized that her silence did not cause him a moment's reflection or curiosity. When she looked out the corner of her eye at him, she could not tell what she meant to him. Slowly, she came to understand that he looked at her with the same interest he gave to the glass of milk. (Susan Vreeland, Girl in Hyacinth Blue)

He pulls the cap off her head. Tears start in her eyes. She is afraid he will undress her wholly. Her poor stick self isn't fit for it. He misunderstands her concern. "The cap: filthy," he says, "and I'm not looking at you anyway, but at the shape of your head." (Gregory Maguire, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister)

He looked at me as if he were not seeing me, but someone else, or something else--as if he were looking at a painting.

He is looking at the light that falls on my face, I thought, not at my face itself. That is the difference. (Tracy Chevalier, Girl with a Pearl Earring)

All four writers have succeeded in concealing from themselves what is apparent to the reader. The insight that comes to their characters as a profound revelation is a commonplace: girl meets artist, girl is fascinated by artist and hopes artist will be fascinated by her, artist looks at girl like thing, girl deals with disappointment by speculating sadly about the impersonal nature of the artistic gaze.

This nearly identical scene adumbrates the plot overlap between the books, in a realm close to the lowest common denominator of fiction: secret love. Deborah Moggach's heroine, Sophia, in the most spirited and readable novel, is the young wife of a much older man. She falls madly in love with that small, wiry painter hired by her husband to paint their portraits and gives herself over to a reckless passion that destroys the life she has led until then.(1) Tracy Chevalier's Griet is much more uptight. She keeps to herself her hopeless adoration for her master, Johannes Vermeer. The first-person Girl with a Pearl Earring is one long sublimation of her longing for him. Susan Vreeland treats us not to one but a series of impossible affairs and sad marriages, as she follows the provenance of a Vermeer painting back from the 20th to the 17th century and the artist's studio. One of the pining parties in Girl in Hyacinth Blue is a man, for a change. Laurens van Luyken, the late 19th-century owner of the painting, likes it because it reminds him of his first love, Tanneke. (This obscure name is also borne by one of the 17th-century women in Girl with a Pearl Earring.) Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, an unpleasant book whose characters speak in wiseguy snarls, exploits the background of 17th-century Haarlem with a laughable premise about the visit of Marie de' Medici to Holland in 1638 which distorts carelessly everything it touches. Enough said about it.

Tulip Fever, Girl in Hyacinth Blue and Girl with a Pearl Earring are romantic fictions, and as such there is no standard of accuracy by which they can be judged. But as evocations of artistic practice and personal life in 17th-century Holland, the books accept certain constraints that do not apply to romantic fiction. They have been praised for their quality as imaginative history, and the authors have not declined this praise. Chevalier is acclaimed on the jacket of her book for having "wonderfully evoked the Delft of the mid-seventeenth-century Netherlands: its canals, markets and churches, the endless, uncomplaining drudgery of a domestic servant's life." In this regard, the books derive part of their worth from their historical accuracy.

That accuracy is considerable. Most of the facts, dates and circumstances described are true to the sources and attest to a lot of hard work on the part of the writers. However, this has not prevented the authors from making egregious mistakes, the kind that a native of the territory would never make. Chevalier's (illiterate) heroine says: "From the front of the house the New Church tower was visible just across the canal. A strange view for a Catholic family, I thought. A church they will never go inside." This thought would never have been formulated by anyone living in the Dutch Republic. The New Church in Delft, like all former Catholic churches, belonged to the township and not the Reformed Church. Except when divine services were in progress, the building was open to, and intensively used by, the entire populace. Moggach's male lead, a painter who gets involved in the tulip trade, buys his bulbs in 1636 in the Sarphatistraat, which every Amsterdamer knows was named for Samuel Sarphati, who laid out this part of the city during his 19th-century lifetime (1813-1866). Susan Vreeland is under the impression that the family name of Count Johan Maurits van Nassau, the builder of the Mauritshuis, was Maurits van Nassau (rather than just van Nassau). This leads to the creation of a personage named Countess Maurits van Nassau, whom Vreeland absurdly calls Countess Maurits. (Chevalier, let it be said, is the most scrupulous of the group as a researcher, Moggach the most easygoing.)

The errors are not all matters of detail. The writers' shallow knowledge leads them to distort entire realms of Dutch life. In Vreeland's Dutch Republic, one person could muse about another who "sits in an empty church like some Catholic," unaware that Catholics always remained the single largest religious group in the country, with house churches that were never big enough to contain the worshipers. Chevalier's Griet worries in chapter after chapter about the tension between the Catholicism of Vermeer's family and her own "Protestantism." The latter term however did not connote a church, and provided no one in Holland with a religious identity. Griet would have belonged to a congregation that called itself "Christian" and that distinguished itself from other Protestant churches even more emphatically than from the Catholics. One of these subscribed to Remonstrantism, the doctrine professed by Vermeer's patron Pieter Claesz. van Ruijven, who plays a supporting role in Girl with a Pearl Earring. In anxious soliloquies about religious affiliation of a real Dutch Griet, this would certainly have come up.

Indeed, many other issues would have come up that are lacking in the three books. The writers' lack of interest in religious denominations is exceeded by their indifference to two other universal Dutch passions: politics and war. The Eighty Years War (1568-1648) and the French invasion of Holland (1672) do not concern any of their characters, nor do they take sides in the issues that divided the country. Supporters of the Prince of Orange and those of the States-General flew at each other's throats during these years, but not in these books. The Holland of Moggach, Vreeland and Chevalier has a nightmarish quality, with obsessive attention to certain conventional concerns (the price of tulip bulbs is irresistible) and an unreal absence of others.