The real medieval tapestries that hang today in a Paris museum inspired Tracy Chevalier to imagine the story behind their creation. The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries were commissioned in 1490 by an ambitious French court lawyer to display his wealth and rising fortunes in a great hall of his home. Not much more is known about them but Chevalier is brilliant at taking scraps of history and weaving them into a compelling narrative.
The Lady and the Unicorn tells a story of seduction—of fabled unicorns, artists and the forbidden daughters of nobles, a blind gardener betrothed to a repulsive tradesman, a dream of exquisite artistry that nearly bankrupts a master weaver. The women in the story struggle against a society in which they are little more than pawns. The men fare only slightly better, although they seem less aware of their limited choices. But the messy lives of people become a set of beautiful tapestries that reflect dreams, love, despair and sorrow covered in patterns of tiny flowers as numerous as petals or snowflakes.
Chevalier captures the sights, sounds, smells, textures and passions of the late fifteenth century in vivid prose. The spectacularly talented painter, Nicolas des Innocents, is hired by the arriviste Jean Le Viste to design battle tapestries. The artist convinces the noble to approve the unicorn tapestries instead. Nicolas nearly beds the eldest Le Viste daughter, Claude, but the pair is discovered by a ladies maid. Undaunted, the artist continues his conquests while pining for the unattainable Claude. No one is safe from him—but one young woman wins his sympathy and his heart and uses him to achieve her own ends. All the while he is drawing and painting the faces of the women in his world into the tapestries.
Unicorns are mythical creatures with strong erotic associations. The tapestries depict the seduction of the unicorn by the lady, although the artist points out to his patron’s wife that reversing the sequence in which the panels are hung shows a woman relinquishing sensual pleasures and returning to unadorned solitude. What happens to Nicolas and his many loves is a narrative as rich as any in the famous wall hangings. The Lady and the Unicorn weaves even more color into the fabulous cloth that can still be seen, more than 500 years later, on the walls of a museum.
The Lady and the Unicorn: A Novel Tracy Chevalier | Dutton 2004