I think it’s really fascinating that Tracy Chevalier wrote a historical novel on a subject that so little is known about. What historians know about Vermeer’s life is still a lot of conjecture and of course, nobody knows anything about the girl in the painting. It’s as if the past has some sort of a gap when it comes to this painting. With this in mind, I think Chevalier was attempting to fill this gap by creating a narrative that felt historically accurate enough to make the reader feel like it was actual history that they were reading. The descriptions of Delft make sense with a reader’s mental picture of 17th century Europe, making it easy to paste Chevalier’s characters onto your image of that part of history. Furthermore, that Griet is a member of the working class allows us to see 17th century Delft from the perspective of the majority of people living there at that time.
Furthermore, it’s important to note that while Chevalier could have chosen to be more descriptive about Vermeer, she doesn’t because Girl with a Pearl Earring is not his story, even if he is a major player. The narrative always belongs to Griet, who can only guess what the brooding and moody painter is thinking. Griet never gives us a physical description of Vermeer either, which I think is Chevalier’s way of acknowledging the fact that nobody knows what the real Vermeer looked like. Vermeer is almost anonymous to history, since all we know is that he was a painter, he lived in Delft, had a lot of kids, and died poor. It’s not much to work off of when creating a story, so it’s only natural that the more interesting figure for study is the girl in the painting, whose expression is so mysterious that it can likely be interpreted in every which way. And her story is one that I found genuinely intriguing because like so many others, I have always been curious about the girl in the painting. Even though we’ll never know what her story is, Chevalier gives her one which satisfies our curiosities without making us feel like her mystery was solved. It’s not a perfect book, but I admire Chevalier’s consideration and skill in telling this story, which proved to be a great example of mature historical fiction.