Thursday, November 20, 2008
The Lady and The Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier
Two families, two cities, one rogue go-between, and a set of gorgeous tapestries, all in a late medieval setting.
Nicolas des Innocents, a handsome, lascivious artist, is summoned to the Paris home of Jean Le Viste, a nobleman who wants Nicolas to design a series of battle tapestries for his house. Jean’s wife, Geneviève, persuades Nicolas to talk her husband into a softer subject: the taming of a unicorn by a noblewoman. Nicolas shapes the tapestries with his own vision, dedicating five of the six to the senses and using the images of Geneviève and her daughter, Claude, with whom Nicolas is smitten, for two of the ladies in the tapestries.
Nicolas takes the finished designs to Brussels, where master weaver Georges de la Chapelle will make them. At first Nicolas is scornful of Georges, but gradually comes to respect him and his wife Christine, and to take an interest in his daughter Aliénor. Nicolas models two more of the ladies in the tapestries after Christine and Aliénor, but his heart lies with the unattainable Claude.
Several story strands are woven together through the design and making of these complex, seductive tapestries.
Chevalier, famous for her novel about Vermeer, focuses her attention here on the Flemish tapestries known as The Lady and The Unicorn. She introduces to the family who ordered them made and to the fictional characters of the cartoonist who made the drawings and the family of weavers who weaved them.
I really enjoyed knowing that she included real people in the novel. I love to go check who’s real and who’s not when I finish a book. And I also enjoyed the fact that she made us understand why people wanted tapestries, how long and how detailed was the work of weaving them and how important was the design. How people’s lives were affected by that tapestry and how each sees in the Tapestry something different. As each chapter is told from a different character’s point of view we are aware of what each of them thinks regarding the tapestry and its meaning.
The characters involved in the story come from different background and it’s the cartoonist, Nicolas des Innocents, who is the link between them all. He wasn’t a particularly likeable character with his unicorn story and his desire to bed most of the women he comes across. There’s an obvious connection between his story and the Unicorn in the tapestry but I must confess that my dislike of him coloured, in part, my appreciation of the story.
The Tapestry represents the 5 senses and the sixth is called A Mon Seul Desir and it is interesting in the end to see how Nicolas and Genevieve de Nanterre see different things in it. Isn’t that in fact the nature of art? To be a different experience for everyone?
Chevalier’s novel has many layers and it is interesting to appreciate also how she portrays the status of women in society, the relationship between the several women in each house, the professional relationships that the weavers maintain and value and a view of society as a whole.