November is nearly over – how did you do with the Reading Challenge this month? If the fact that we had to keep restocking the displays at the library are any indication, this was a popular topic. It’s always interesting to take a peek into another life and see how that person lived – and in the process we learn a lot about ourselves as well!
When I looked through the titles for the Other Lives Challenge, I noticed that many (not all, but many) were about unknown or behind-the-scenes women – the wives of famous men or the anonymous women that supported great works. Women have historically been regulated to the background and their voices considered too unimportant to record but through fictional biographies we can gain some insight into what they accomplished and how they lived.
For this month’s challenge I read The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier which is a fictional account of the famous Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. Created in the late 1400s in France, very little is known about the artist that created the scenes depicted in the tapestries, the weavers that crafted them or the noble family that commissioned them. Chevalier researched not only the customs and lifestyle of the time period, but also the craft of weaving in the 1400s, an art form that was practiced and mastered in Brussels where the tapestries are believed to have been made.
There is a lot of history in this book including the lifestyles and customs of the 15th century, the art of tapestry weaving and the guilds that protect the quality of the tapestries, the role of women both noble and common. The narrative jumps to a different person each chapter, from the artist Chevalier imagines painted the scenes, to the wife of the nobleman who commissions the tapestries, to the wife of the weaver tasked with such an enormous commission, to the rebellious daughter of the nobleman. There is no clear interpretation of what the tapestries represent and much speculation about the women and scenes even today, but Chevalier has spun a story that intertwines various characters and how the making of these tapestries touched and influenced many lives.
I’ve been lucky enough to see the actual tapestries (they are on display in carefully regulated conditions to preserve them at the Cluny Museum in Paris). They are extraordinarily beautiful, full of detail and color and life and exquisite craftsmanship. The Lady and the Unicorn makes for fascinating reading and is the next best thing until you can visit them yourself.