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Since the early twentieth-century, art historians have lauded Vermeer's paintings both as timeless and as true renderings of the artist's world. Critics persistently describe Vermeer as ardently historical at the same time as they insist he throws off the constraints of history.

Art historians and novelists seem to share the view that Vermeer's paintings create an inhabitable imaginary world for today's viewers-they depict spaces we can picture ourselves entering and people with whom we feel we could converse. As the examples offered in Part 2 of this essay show, art historians consistently write of Vermeer as though the picture plane collapses the distance between Vermeer's studio and the dispersed and irreducible viewing spaces of the present to an almost permeable membrane.

The prevalence of this approach to his work enables the romantic re-imagining of the past which characterises Vermeer fiction. My discussion of Girl with a Pearl Earring begins to answer these questions by paying attention to those moments in the novel which reflect on the complex dynamics of looking-at paintings, people, and objects. In this novel, the relationship between the "spectatorial" and "bodily" realms between sight and touch is used to reflect on the process of "looking back" to the past to produce fiction.

All three of the novels are extended meditations on the relationship between sight and subjectivity. My problem with them is the degree to which their explorations of the dynamics of looking are circumscribed by normative assumptions about bodies and desire. The following close reading of Girl with a Pearl Earring develops this argument in greater detail and suggests, I hope, further avenues for research.

In her book, The Character of Truth, Naomi Jacobs contends that the appearance of historical figures as characters in late-twentieth-century fiction is a symptom of the demise of the "hegemony of realism" xiv and a concomitant destabilisation of the status of official histories: "There is a new cast of characters in fiction these days" xiii.

Sublime Desire: History and Post-1960s Fiction

For Jacobs, novelists as diverse as E. This theoretical turn in contemporary literature accounts for an apparent disinterest in both standards of historical accuracy and the maintenance of the disciplinary divide between history and literature.

The frequent appearance of historical characters in contemporary fiction communicates a "new sense of the plasticity of historical figures" which, in turn, follows from the perception that history is no less a construction than fiction xvi. Certainly, casting Johannes Vermeer as a man at once entranced and profoundly unsettled by the girl who dusts his shelves suggests a view that historical figures are not locked into stories which can be verified by archival research.

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This novel has little interest in maintaining standards of "factual truth"; in this sense history is an "open work" Elias "Defining Spatial History" However, Chevalier's approach to history does not open notions of "unified identity, and aesthetic perfection" to interrogation. To the contrary, it functions to reinforce them; the unity of the self and beauty are treated as standards which transcend history. In this sense, treating history as an "open work" upholds rather than questions hegemonic notions of "reality. Art historians have speculated that one of Vermeer's daughters may have been the model for Girl with a Pearl Earring c.

Instead, Chevalier imagines her as an outsider in the artist's household: a year-old girl, Griet, who leaves her family home to work for Vermeer. Initially employed as a maid and to clean his studio, she later becomes his assistant and his model. From the novel's opening pages, it is clear that Griet shares the painter's acute visual sensitivity to her surroundings. Griet is the only character in Vermeer's household not based, even if just in name, on historical accounts of his life.

In spite of all my efforts and of those who preceded me in combing through Delft's archives, less documentary evidence has survived regarding Vermeer himself than regarding his grandparents, his uncles and aunts, and especially his in-laws: Maria Thins, the formidable mother of his wife Catharina, and Catharina's irascible brother Willem. Clearly one of the attractions of Vermeer for fiction writers is that biographers and art historians have managed to unearth so little about his life and frequently disagree about how to interpret what they have found.

For instance, whereas Montias suggests that Pieter Claesz van Ruijven, a wealthy Delft burgher, was "just about Vermeer's sole buyer" Broos 47 , as he is in the novel, others argue that the existing evidence suggests he had a wider market. Chevalier uses the "web" of characters Montias identifies as the base for her novel, but the lack of broader agreement about the connections between these historical figures allows her to pick and chose which figures should feature in her tale and, more importantly, to weave in entirely imagined characters.

As I noted above, following Jacobs, Chevalier's approach to historical fiction in this novel does seem to support an argument that she shakes up the facts in order to show the "plasticity" of history. From this perspective, Maria Thins remark, towards the end of the novel, that Griet caused "[t]he most trouble we've ever had with a maid" is a metafictional reference to the liberties the book takes with history.

However, the novel's portrayal of Vermeer also suggests a view less destabilising of traditional notions of history than Jacobs's work anticipates. While Chevalier's play with historical records is sanctioned by a widely-shared idea of history as unknowable or at least incomplete at the level of facts, it advocates at the same time an idea of history as knowable at the level of "universal" truths. These two views of history are tied to the novel's use of Vermeer's painting, described by Chevalier as "a universal picture of young woman-hood" Chevalier, Interview.

Chevalier has owned a poster of the painting since she was nineteen years old, but first saw the actual painting at the exhibition, Johannes Vermeer, at the Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis, The Hague in Schumacher. In the exhibition catalogue, a text which Chevalier knows very well 9 , Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr. As this young girl stares out at the viewer with liquid eyes and parted mouth, she radiates purity, captivating all that gaze upon her.

Her soft, smooth skin is as unblemished as the surface of her large, teardrop-shaped pearl earring.

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Like a vision emanating from the darkness, she belongs to no specific time or place. Her exotic turban, wrapping her head in crystalline blue, is surmounted by a striking yellow fabric that falls dramatically behind her shoulder, lending an air of mystery to the image.

In the novel, Griet never has an opportunity to look closely at the finished painting; it is only described once. The painting was like none of his others. It was just of me, of my head and shoulders, with no tables or curtains, no windows or powderbrushes to soften and distract. He had painted me with my eyes wide, the light falling across my face but the left side of me in shadow. I was wearing blue and yellow and brown.

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The cloth wound around my head made me look not like myself, but like Griet from another town, even from another country altogether. The background was black, making me appear very much alone, although I was clearly looking at someone. I seemed to be waiting for something I did not think would ever happen.

This passage echoes the exhibition catalogue in some significant ways: the girl is radically alone, but her wide-eyed gaze and "liquid eyes" invoke an audience; despite her "exotic turban" she "belongs to no specific time and place"; the girl's image appears like a moment in a narrative of "mystery" or "waiting. In these terms, this painting achieves the temporal collapse which makes the imaginative work of historical fiction possible. In Chevalier's description the girl is "clearly looking at someone;" the anonymity of "someone" brings together, however fleetingly, the multiple and historically dispersed viewers of this painting.

Within the imagined world on the other side of the frame, she looks at the artist, but she also looks out of the frame. Edward Snow reads the portrait in a similar way to Chevalier and Wheelock, but makes explicit the link between the young girl's gaze and contemporary viewers: "For to meet this young girl's gaze is to be implicated in its urgency It is me at whom she gazes, with real, unguarded human emotions, and with an intensity that demands something just as real and human in return" 3.

In all three of these readings of the painting, Chevalier's novel and the art historians' analyses Wheelock, Snow , the central drama of the painting and the viewer's relationship to it is a romantic one; it pivots on the figure of an unknown woman from the past and the question of desire she encapsulates for contemporary viewers.

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The only description of the painting in the novel interprets it as a portrayal of the girl's longing: "I seemed to be waiting for something that I did not think would ever happen" For Snow, the painting is a complex picture of "yearning" 3. For Bryan Jay Wolf, after looking closely at this painting, "[w]hat remains for those, like the painter, on the other side of the picture plane is longing " What is the relationship between these two modalities of desire: that inferred from the wide-eyed gaze of an unknown girl and the viewer's desire to imaginatively intercept that gaze, to discover its object?

My argument is that the complex possibilities of Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring are cathected into a narrow channel by the novel's reading of the painting as a moment in a tale of heterosexual desire. As I have already explained, historical romance fiction is organised by a whole series of complex binary oppositions.

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In these terms, the lack of detailed studies of the representation of sexuality in historical fiction is a serious oversight. For Wolf, this painting "condenses into a single figure, with a minimum of detail, the issue of seeing" He identifies two registers within Vermeer's painting: the bodily or "tactile" and the spectatorial.

The force of Girl with a Pearl Earring, for Wolf, follows from the painting's distinction between these two realms: "she summarizes for us, as for Vermeer, the split between seeing and doing that defines, even as it genders, the dilemmas of perception in the early modern period" The "key" to understanding this split and thus the painting "lies in the turn of the woman's head" He explains that this turn captures the strain between the "generalized world of the body-parallel to the picture plane-and the spectatorial arena of the head set in contrapuntal relation to the body" Wolf describes the painting's "lateral plane" as an embodiment of a "tactile-erotic narrative" The relationship between these "lateral" and "perpendicular" picture planes is fundamental to Chevalier's project in Girl with a Pearl Earring.

In the terms of the novel, the lateral plane corresponds to a linear model of history; the logic of this plane permits Chevalier's play with the facts because it is ultimately unknowable. We can only imagine the "tactile-erotic narrative" which transforms this girl into a character. The perpendicular, or spectatorial, plane enables this imaginative work; it corresponds to a spatial model of history according to which the relationship between this girl's gaze and "all that gaze upon her" Wheelock is an immediate one, characterised in Snow's terms, by "urgency" and immediacy.

As I commented above, the bodily and spectatorial planes are best distinguished as diachronic and synchronic registers. The novel insists on the distinction between the bodily and the spectatorial, through the characterisation of Griet and, in particular, her gradual awareness that while others have claims on her body, she retains ownership of her gaze.

Indeed, one of the chief ways in which the novel seeks to engage readers' sympathies for Griet is through this contradiction; she may have limited control over her physical destiny, but-the novel insists-at least her "wide eyes" are her own. There are frequent references in Chevalier's novel to Griet's "wide eyes"; they symbolise the strength and the peculiarity of her gaze.

Griet's eyes are the key to her active internal life: "Strangers would think I was calm. I did not cry as a baby. Only my mother would note the tightness along my jaw, the widening of my already wide eyes" 3; see also 62, , At the same time, though, Griet's "wide eyes" draw the usually unwelcome gaze of others. This is most apparent in the depiction of Vermeer's patron, van Ruijven, whose lecherous advances to Griet are used as a counterpoint for Vermeer's attraction to her: "Where's that wide-eyed maid?

Gone already? I wanted to have a proper look at her? The problem of Griet's too-direct gaze is foreshadowed early in the novel when she has an altercation with a boatman on the canal and learns that to return a man's gaze is to signal sexual availability. When Griet first leaves her parent's home, she is aware of herself as the object of a multiplied gaze-"watched curiously" 11 as she walks along the street. A boatman calls out to her: "I merely nodded and lowered my head so that the edge of the cap hid my face" Later in the day, the same man helps her to retrieve a pot that has fallen in the canal: "Oh, you're looking at me now that you want something from me, are you?