A World of Blue: Espionage, Artistry and Early Modern Women
Simone van der Vlugt’s Midnight Blue (HarperCollins UK, 2017 / William Morrow US, 2018) is set in mid-17th-century Netherlands, while Nancy Bilyeau’s The Blue (Endeavour Quill UK, 2018) occurs a century later, in England and France. What do they have in common? The titles say it all: an obsession with the color blue, specifically as it relates to porcelain, and two less than conventional heroines.
In Midnight Blue, 25-year-old Catrin, recently widowed, leaves her village in search of work. Her true talent is painting, but she finds employment as housekeeper for the wealthy van Nulandt family in Amsterdam. When dangers from her past emerge, a new position as a painter of pottery in Delft offers the appearance of safety. Catrin’s innovative designs transform her master’s business, but dire threats lie in wait.
The historical atmosphere is well-realized, and Van der Vlugt explains, “I have been busy for over twenty years with 17th-century Netherlands. It’s the little things that interest me, the details that give a story colour. It’s not too difficult to imagine; a lot of the Dutch landscape has changed little since that time.”
What has changed are the roles women are permitted to assume, especially in industry. Van der Vlugt notes, “In contrast to many other countries, in the Netherlands women were allowed to become members of a guild, though it didn’t happen often. Women were not permitted to run their own businesses – they were under the watchful eye of their father, brother, or husband.”
Bilyeau makes it clear that a century later, ambitious women still had few options. In The Blue, Huguenot refugee Genevieve Planché, almost of an age with Catrin, relies upon her artist grandfather. His attempts to find a painter to tutor his talented granddaughter are fruitless, since no one in England will take a woman as protégée. The last thing Genevieve wants is the work found for her: painting designs at the Derby Porcelain Works. Her dreams seem within reach when a mysterious aristocrat offers all she’s ever wanted – in exchange for a little industrial espionage. There are those who are willing to stop at nothing to obtain the formula for a stunning new blue used to decorate Derby porcelain, and Genevieve finds herself in grave danger.
Unlike Catrin, who is thrilled at the prospect of painting pottery, being a porcelain decorator, for Genevieve, is something akin to “a living death.” The work environments for the women are different: Catrin’s is a small workshop, while Genevieve finds herself in a large manufactory. Bilyeau notes that, due to fierce competition, porcelain was at the forefront of the nascent Georgian Industrial Revolution. “The only sort of people who would have thrown themselves into making porcelain would have had to be obsessive and perfectionist, and risk-taking, too,” she says. “In England, they jumped into it with a vengeance, and workshops turned into manufactories.” This mania for the product created a unique atmosphere that, Bilyeau explains, “brought out the worst in people at times — the core of my story is about spying, which was there from the beginning.” By contrast, while there is competition for Delft Blue in Golden Age Holland, it manifests with more civility in a less cutthroat environment. One of Catrin’s fellow artisans splits off to start his own workshop, but is open about the undertaking.
Catrin is a complicated character, but one of her defining traits is pragmatism, and she feels very true to her time. Van der Vlugt explains how she avoided the pitfall so many historical novelists sprawl headlong into – giving their female characters an anachronistically modern feminist viewpoint. “The biggest problem in writing a historical novel,” she says, “is that you have to let go of 21st century thinking. That is only possible if you know how 17th-century people saw the world and lived in it.” Genevieve is likewise complicated, and goes through a difficult process in order to know herself. As she thinks in the novel: “What a curious experience, to learn the truth of one’s own character.” Genevieve is ambitious, smart, creative but, Bilyeau notes, “also impulsive and a bit arrogant, which is not a recipe for the ideal woman of the mid-18th century. I studied the lives of Huguenots, porcelain decorators, and spies in the 18th century to craft Genevieve. I also researched women who struggled to be serious artists.” The connection for Bilyeau is personal: her father is a watercolor landscape artist. Bilyeau was struck by her father’s “drive to create,” despite intense opposition from his parents.
Both authors explore the artistic drive not only through their protagonists, but also via marquee names that inhabit the periphery of their stories. In Midnight Blue, Catrin meets two of the great painters of the age. Van der Vlugt explains, “I always like to put historical figures in my books. Catrin gets to know Rembrandt and Vermeer. That is plausible. In Amsterdam, via her employer, she enters the painters’ milieu, and then it is just a small step to Rembrandt. For Vermeer, it’s the same. Delft was a small town where everyone knew each other. It would have been strange if Catrin had not got to know Vermeer. But, of course, it is also fun to weave famous names into the story.” Bilyeau shares this sentiment: “As much as I love history and strive to write the best work of fiction I can, at the end of the day, it’s fun. I really enjoy populating my novels with people who lived.” Genevieve meets not only Hogarth, but even more exalted company – Madame de Pompadour and Louis XV.
When taken together, the two novels provide a sort of artisanal progression. Van der Vlugt describes how, by the first half of the 17th century, voyages of discovery had already made Chinese porcelain extremely popular. “Every rich citizen had it in the house,” she says, “but in 1647, a civil war in China put an end to trade, and Dutch cities, with Delft as the first, decided to make Chinese porcelain themselves. Although they could not match the Chinese, it was very popular; that of Delft became the most famous, and gave it the name it still has: Delft Blue.” Bilyeau notes, “The color blue was already made use of in porcelain making in Europe and China when my novel begins. Dutch Delftware was gorgeous, and a peak example of how the Europeans were able to imitate the Chinese.” Bilyeau focuses on the rarity of blue pigments, and a new source and process to create an entirely new, breathtaking blue – one so valuable that men would kill for it. As Catrin says when asked about the fascination porcelain holds: “The colors. That deep blue on gleaming white. And the designs…when I looked at them I felt like I’d stepped into another world. A world so far away from here…A world I’ll never see.” Through these two novels set a century apart, Van der Vlugt and Bilyeau offer a glimpse for modern readers: artistry, industry, beauty, and danger in a world obsessed with blue.
About the contributor: Bethany Latham is HNR’s Managing Editor.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 86 (November 2018)