As she does in her previous novels, in The Lady and the Unicorn Tracy Chevalier invents a clever story to explain how a famous work of art came to be made. The art in this case is a fifteenth century series of tapestries, known as the Lady and the Unicorn cycle. Chevalier produces the scant historical record in a note at the end of her text. What is known for certain is that someone in the Le Viste family in Paris commissioned the tapestries; the Le Viste family crest appears among the figures and flowers that adorn each panel. It is also known that the tapestries passed outside the family and ended up in a chateau in central France by the middle of the seventeenth century. There they remained largely unnoticed by the outside world until the nineteenth century, when their rediscovery caused something of a sensation, especially because noted French writers Prosper Mérimée and Georges Sand played a major role in their restoration and preservation.
The six tapestries, now hanging in the Cluny Museum in Paris, relate how a woman, through her charms, tempts a unicorn to come to her and allow her to caress him. For medieval audiences, the sexual overtones of this tale would not have been overlooked, and Chevalier uses this theme in a number of ways in her fictional account of the creation of this work of visual art.
The plot of the novel is simple yet engaging. In 1490, a French nobleman living in Paris, Jean Le Viste, decides to commission a set of tapestries honoring his family. Rather than approach one of the experienced tapestry designers who worked regularly on such projects for the European nobility, Le Viste seeks the services of a noted painter (and womanizer), Nicolas des Innocents, to handle the job of creating a series depicting the Battle of Nancy. Although principally a miniaturist and unaccustomed to working on such large projects, Nicolas agrees to the commission—partly because he is taken with Le Viste's beautiful daughter, whom he hopes to seduce.
Almost immediately, however, Nicolas finds that neither task will be easy. Le Viste's powerful wife, Geneviève, wants no battle scenes in her dining hall. With her help, Nicolas is able to convince Le Viste to accept a story of powerful significance to medieval people: the seduction of a unicorn by a beautiful lady. Turning on its head the notion that the unicorn—whose horn had significance as a symbol of sexuality in the Middle Ages—would be the seducer, Nicolas designs a series of pictures that demonstrate how the lady lures the unicorn into her presence and eventually has him lay his horn in her lap.
Unlike the miniatures for which Nicolas has earned his reputation, the production of a set of tapestries requires a group effort. Nicolas is sent with his preliminary drawings to Brussels, to the workshop of the weaver Georges de la Chappelle, who receives the commission to produce the tapestries Nicolas has designed. There he works with Philippe de la Tour, a specialist in transforming art into “cartoons,” larger-than-life sketches that the weavers use for patterns. There also he meets Georges's beautiful blind daughter Aliénor, whom he captivates and eventually makes pregnant. Ever the artist, Nicolas incorporates the faces of the women he meets in the Le Viste and de la Chapelle households into the tapestries, providing them lasting tributes to their beauty.
While Nicolas is shuttling between Paris and Brussels, Geneviève learns that her daughter, Claude, is infatuated with the artist. Knowing that Claude must eventually marry a man of her family's rank, Geneviève takes drastic measures to preserve her daughter's virginity. Clandestinely, she has Claude transported to a convent; there the daughter grudgingly comes to understand the role she must play in society as a woman of rank.
Although the novel can hardly be called a cliffhanger, a certain air of suspense is created when conditions at the workshop make it difficult for Georges and his crew to complete the tapestries by the deadline Le Viste has set. Then, as in all good romances, the sacrifice of a few good women, handling jobs they are not supposed to take on, makes it...
(The entire section is 1694 words.)