It’s 1899, and Louis Comfort Tiffany is preparing a series of dramatic artworks made of colored glass to show at the Paris World Exposition the next spring. His workshop is unusual by the standards of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: not only does he hire women artists, but he pays them at rates similar to those of his male employees. Shelley Noble’s new novel, The Tiffany Girls, due out on Tuesday, follows the intertwined stories of three of these women: Emilie Pascal, Grace Griffith, and the real-life Clara Driscoll—whose obituary was republished by the New York Times earlier this year. Shelley was kind enough to answer my questions, so read on to find out more.
I noticed on your website that you have published, in addition to a lot of contemporary novels, a historical mystery series set in the early twentieth century. Did this lead into The Tiffany Girls, and if not, what did spark your interest in Tiffany and his female staff?
My latest Gilded Age Manhattan series literally led me to the Tiffany Girls. I was researching turn-of-the-century (19th–20th) psychology for A Secret Never Told, which dealt with a group of particularly murderous psychoanalysts, when an article about the discovery of Clara Wolcott Driscoll’s family letters appeared in the feed. Being easily enticed into unexpected rabbit holes, I opened the link and read about the almost simultaneous discovery of two batches of her personal letters (1906) that shed light on this little-known department in the Louis C. Tiffany Glass Company and led to an exhibit and book titled A New Light on Tiffany. I was captivated. The Tiffany Girls became my next novel.
Emilie Pascal is the first of your women artists that we meet and the most troubled. How would you characterize her personality and her goals as an artist?
Emilie is passionate and driven—passionate about art, about creativity, about life. But she has seen how passion can destroy, and she is determined to succeed in her art no matter what she must sacrifice.
And what takes Emilie away from Paris?
Her father, a respected Parisian portrait painter, is abusive and is finally outed as a notorious art forger. He is sought by the police and Emilie knows she must reinvent herself far from the scandal if she is to realize her future as an artist. She has seen an exhibit of Tiffany’s glass works, has heard of his division of anonymous women artists, and determines to become one of them.
Grace Griffith helps Emilie out from the moment of their first meeting, but the two don’t entirely share the same goals. What does Grace want from life, and what stands in her way?
Grace is down-to-earth with “the new woman” notions. She is fair and compassionate, and is one of the best drafters in the women’s division, but she aspires to be a political cartoonist and change society through her drawings. Of course, she can do this only under a pseudonym, because journalism is still a male domain. But one day …
Each of these young women has a male interested in her—indeed, Emilie has more than one. But both are reluctant to encourage romantic relationships. Why, and what can you tell us about Emilie’s Leland (and Amon) and Grace’s Charlie?
Women of the time were just encountering widening work opportunities. “The new women” of the early twentieth century were interested in getting an education and pursuing a career, not only as teachers and nurses but as shop “girls,” typewriter “girls,” telephone “girls,” and so on. No married women need apply. And when a working girl became engaged or wed, she was immediately let go. Many of the girls at Tiffany’s were anxious to be married, but those who wanted careers had to make the decision to stay single. Grace and Emilie are both young, pretty, and intelligent, and they naturally attract young men. Charlie is older, a seasoned journalist, a bit world weary, but he sees Grace’s potential and nurtures her career. The glassblower Amon calls to Emilie’s passion, but she is afraid to allow him to get too close. Leland is cultured, rich, an art dealer who is charming and comfortable with an artistic eye. Of course, both men appeal to Emilie’s warring nature. But neither Grace nor Emilie is willing to sacrifice her goals by ceding them to matrimony.
Clara Driscoll is the third of the Tiffany Girls to merit inclusion in your book description. She’s in a very different place in her life from Emilie, Grace, and their cohort, though. What’s most important for us to know about her?
Clara was an actual person, the manager of the women’s division, but she was also an artist, responsible for some of Tiffany’s most iconic pieces. She did this, as did all the women, mostly without receiving personal recognition for her work. But from everything we know, she never resented Tiffany. It took several workers to complete a lamp or window or decorative item, a collaborative effort. But Tiffany was the driving genius of the work, and I like to think that his artists recognized that.
Last but not least, we have Louis Comfort Tiffany, who is simultaneously the center of the women’s working life and peripheral to their personal stories. Was he fun to write? What should we take away about him and his art?
Tiffany himself was harder to write. He was definitely the center of his artists’ world; he is also a bit of an enigma. We have bits and pieces about him: he had to fight his father (the jeweler) constantly in order to be free to follow his own art. He was a philanthropist, loved the new automobiles and fast speed, was evidently a loving husband and father, and stuttered when he became upset. He did leave a few writings about art, and these helped me with his work and attitude to his art and artists. What I did imagine was that, most of all, besides being an artist and creator of brilliant works, he was also human.
And what of you? Are you already working on something else?
I’m currently working on a new historical novel about three women who in the early 1900s must overcome scandal, the male patriarchy of New York society, the overbearing morality of the times, and their own preconceptions about each other to establish the first women's only club in Manhattan.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!
Shelley Noble is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of sixteen novels of historical fiction, historical mystery, and contemporary women’s fiction—most recently, The Tiffany Girls. Find out more about her at https://www.shelleynoble.com.
Images: poster for the 1889 Exposition universelle de Paris, photographs of Clara Driscoll in 1901 and of her famed Dragonfly lamp all public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Photograph of Shelley Noble from the author’s website.