A series of six tapestries depicting a lady seducing a unicorn now hang in the Musee National du Moyen Age in Paris. Although these tapestries --- created in the late fifteenth century --- are some of the most famous in the world, very little is known about their creation or their history. Tracy Chevalier, the novelist best known for writing the perennial book club favorite (and new feature film) GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING, has used her rich imagination to weave together romance, humor and art history in THE LADY AND THE UNICORN.
Chevalier starts with one of the few facts that is actually known about the tapestries: they were created for the nobleman Jean Le Viste, whose family coat of arms features prominently in their design. In Chevalier's portrayal, Le Viste is a power-hungry nobleman with close ties to the king. He wants tapestries depicting the glories of war, but the artist, Nicolas des Innocents --- who specializes in portraits of noblewomen --- convinces Le Viste that a series of tapestries about courtly love will still bring glory to the Le Viste name.
Nicolas himself is a womanizer --- the novel opens from his point of view, and we quickly learn that his amorous sights are set on Le Viste's teenage daughter, Claude. Much to the reader's surprise (and delight), when Claude narrates the next section of the novel we learn that she is just as lustful as Nicolas, and her prose just as bawdy. Needless to say, when Claude's family discovers their flirtation, her mother (who wants to be a nun) must concoct a plan to keep the would-be lovers apart. Claude is banished to a convent and Nicolas is sent to Brussels to supervise the weaving of the tapestries there.
This development helps highlight one of the key themes of the novel, which is the juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane. Chevalier's novel is at turns raunchy and rapturous, and this contrast applies not only to the tapestries themselves and to the characters involved in their creation, but also to the whole culture of late-medieval France.
In Brussels, Nicolas once again becomes woven up in a family drama, this time in the industrious Chapelle family of weavers. Their daughter Alienor is beautiful but blind, and they fear she must marry the rude and odiferous wool dyer, whom she can't stand. Nicolas and Alienor concoct a plan to save her from her fate while allowing Nicolas to do what he does best.
In addition to being a hugely entertaining romp through art history and medieval sexual politics, THE LADY AND THE UNICORN also includes a number of interesting details about the art of weaving. By the end of this book, you'll have not only a clear picture of medieval weaving equipment and techniques, but also a greater understanding of and appreciation for the tapestries themselves, and for the weavers whose stories were lost to history --- until Chevalier creatively brought them back to life.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 22, 2011
The Lady and the Unicorn