Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1694
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.
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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 possible for the tapestries to be delivered to Le Viste in time for the great banquet at which he announces the engagement of Claude to a young nobleman.
In telling her story, Chevalier devotes considerable attention to the process of tapestry-making, explaining in detail the processes of dyeing and weaving that are central to the craft. Some may find the lengthy descriptions tedious, but in Chevalier's defense, it is fair to say that these sections of the novel add a dimension of verisimilitude that ground the work in the fifteenth century.
Certainly Chevalier is not the first to use such a technique—and not the first to be criticized for doing so. Reviewers dismissed Herman Melville in 1851 for interrupting a good sea tale with chapters of “dull” detail about the business of whaling. While it would be going too far to claim forThe Lady and the Unicorn a place beside Moby Dick in the literary canon, the comparison is not without merit: Both authors see the need to give readers an inside look at the industry on which the details of their stories hinge.
What makes Chevalier's novel most interesting is her technique of storytelling. Rather than choose to relate the story from the point of view of an omniscient narrator or a single character, Chevalier has a number of different characters carry the story forward in a series of first-person narratives that both reveal and mask something of each character's personality and motives.
The artist Nicolas may be the central figure in the drama, but he is hardly a likable protagonist; those familiar with nineteenth century literature may see parallels between him and Tito Melema, the self-centered artist and womanizer of George Eliot's Romola (1862-1863). Nicolas is arrogant, convinced of his own merits, and extremely chauvinistic—in more ways than one. Certainly he believes that no woman can resist his charms and that all women are his for the taking. He is also convinced that outside Paris, there is no civilization. For a long time he treats the inhabitants of Brussels as peasants, only gradually coming to realize the exceptional talents of those involved in creating the works of art in which his drawings are a key but not exclusive part.
Nicolas learns nothing about moral rectitude, however, as the story progresses. He is as lecherous in his approach to Georges's daughter near the end of the novel as he is toward Claude Le Viste in its opening pages. When he finds he is being forced to marry Claude's lady-in-waiting, Beatrice, he cheerfully resigns himself to that fate—then, as the epilogue relates, continues his amorous ways, fathering three children with women other than his wife. Anyone hoping for poetic justice in his case will be disappointed.
On the other hand, Geneviève de Nanterre, perhaps the most interesting character in the novel, will certainly evoke sympathy from modern readers. A woman of strong will born in a time when strong-willed women were not valued much, she is frustrated by the limitations placed on her by conventions that require her to be hostess and mother. Although she loves her daughters, she feels the stigma of having failed to produce a son. In desperation, she presses her husband to allow her to retreat to a convent, the only other option open to women of her day. Hearing her speak of her plight in her own words adds special poignancy to her plea for understanding.
Rivaling Geneviève for readers’ sympathy is Georges's blind daughter, Aliénor. In medieval society, her chances for having a full and happy life are even slimmer than those of Le Viste's wife. A disabled woman was seldom more than a liability to the family forced to sustain her. Georges and his wife, Christine, are more than glad that the woad man (the dyer who produces blue threads for their tapestries) is interested in Aliénor. Of course, he is a smelly, brutish churl with no discernible redeeming qualities. It is good for Aliénor (and for readers who take a liking to her) that she has another admirer, Philippe de la Tour, who comes to her rescue when her parents discover she is pregnant with Nicolas's child. Despite Philippe's willingness to play the role of white knight, however, Aliénor remains somehow captivated by the dissipated artist—a tendency more common in real life than in romances. Chevalier deals with this subject candidly if subtly in her novel.
At least one reviewer has suggested that The Lady and the Unicorn is a novel principally for women. In this reviewer's opinion, its links with popular women's romances are unmistakable. While there is truth in this observation, those who choose to read the novel as a simple romance may be depriving themselves of a much richer experience. As she does in its predecessor Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999), in The Lady and the Unicorn Chevalier practices with exceptional skill the technique of ekphrasis, describing an object of visual art through the medium of literature. When done with skill, ekphrasis results in the production of a new work of art based on the older one. In The Lady and the Unicorn, Chevalier not only brings to life the images on the fifteenth century tapestry she describes but at the same time she weaves a verbal tapestry of her own, skillfully combining multiple points of view, extended description of technical processes, and careful psychological insights into the medieval men and women she portrays. The Lady and the Unicorn should bear repeated reading by those who appreciate the subtleties of literature handled by one who is becoming a master of technique.
Booklist 100, no. 5 (November 1, 2003): 458.
Entertainment Weekly, January 9, 2004, p. 82.
Library Journal 129, no. 1 (January 15, 2004): 152.
The New York Times, December 18, 2003, p. E9.
The New York Times Book Review 153 (December 21, 2003): 23.
People 61, no. 1 (January 12, 2004): 47.
Publishers Weekly 250, no. 49 (December 8, 2003): 45.
Time 163, no. 4 (January 26, 2004): 67.
The Times Literary Supplement, October 3, 2003, p. 23.
USA Today, January 27, 2004, p. D4.