Jessie Burton’s debut, The Miniaturist, derives inspiration from a 17th-century hobby for young wives, an ostentatious curiosity cabinet on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, that was built in the late 17th century, commissioned by Petronella Oortman, who wanted a replica of the luxurious townhouse in which she lived in the centre of Amsterdam. Burton’s Petronella Oortman is an 18-year-old country girl, from an impoverished aristocratic family, married off to a wealthy merchant, who, instead of his affection, presents her with the minute replica of the house that she was brought to. The purpose of the gift is to distract curious Nella from focusing on her rather distant husband, but she sees it as ‘no more than an insult to her fragile status.’ It all begins like a naive child’s play, but it eventually turns into something rather ominous with disastrous consequences. The Miniaturist is a true reading delight, well-structured, well-worded, with intriguing characters who go through a major metamorphosis by the time the novel reaches its thrilling denouement.
Just like her enigmatic miniaturist, Burton portrays a highly vivid image of the 17th-century Amsterdam, where accruing wealth is considered a virtue, an investment in the city’s prosperity, whereas, at the same time the Calvinist ministers condemn the city’s wealthy merchants for flaunting what their bulging bags of guilders can buy. Burton focuses particularly on the Brandts’ house where most of the action takes place. The house, and the miniature house within it, is a microcosm that mirrors Amsterdam and the society itself; the surfaces are shiny and well-polished, the secrets buried deep underneath. The Miniaturist is beautifully written, overflowing with flamboyantly colorful figurative language used to portray the contrast between the delightfully vibrant, sugar-infused interior of the rich Amsterdamers’ townhouses and the morose, meagre, and stringent public life. For instance, Nella lies awake in her bed listening to the house settling down for the night and looks at the ‘hairline crack of moonlight glinting over painted hare and rotten pomegranate.’ Nella’s first night in her new home involves the moonlit sky, the eerie sounds coming from somewhere in the house, and moon rays on an expensive painting hung in her room. The next day things get tense in the Brandt household: ‘The air is hot, the atmosphere a bruise,’ in the Brandts’ dining room at the first mention of drowning as a punishment for men. And so the descriptions go on. Burton’s sentences are rich, elegant, and flowing like a well-cut summer dress.
The Major Shortcoming
Burton provides us with a menagerie of compelling characters, however, she does not give us a deep enough look into the psyche of the protagonists, the motivation that lies beneath the calm surface. Petronella Oortman remains unconvincing due to the underlying discrepancies in her character. She is a naive village girl, who led a rather secluded life, yet who, after only several weeks in Amsterdam, somehow develops an almost 21st-century understanding of the problem that she’s facing, together with an inexplicable entrepreneurial spirit and extremely high level of maturity. Johannes Brandt is intriguing, intelligent, and incredibly successful, yet he falls victim to his passions and commits a public indiscretion that sends him to his ruin.
The greatest shortcoming is definitively the portrayal of the miniaturist herself. Suggested by the title, the novel should revolve around the mysterious artisan, yet we never find out the woman’s complete story. There should have been more in-depth analysis of the fact that a woman manages to develop such a level of skill at the time when ‘No woman can be an apprentice (…) No man is keen to train a woman. No guild except the seamstresses or stinking peat-carriers would have her. And what would be the point? Men are the makers of this world.’ The reader has numerous questions such as, how does the miniaturist know what is going on in the Brandt household? Does she have any prophetic powers? Why is the fact that she is Petronella’s namesake important? How is she related to the young Englishman? Even though Burton introduces the character of the miniaturist’s father toward the end of the novel, most probably with the purpose of answering most of these questions, the answers that he provides are rather vague and incomplete. We are given snippets, bits and pieces, but the miniaturist remains cloaked in mystery.
The Waspish Spinster
Marin, Johannes’ waspish sister, is probably Burton’s greatest success in this novel. Whereas she does not reveal much of her other characters’ internal motivations, she truly imbues Marin Brandt with the power to startle and astonish. Although seemingly a prototype of a Calvinist spinster, Marin has in fact been born in the wrong place at the wrong time. After the disaster strikes, Marin is the ‘only one who can bring [them] into any order.’ She is highly driven and extremely capable. By tracking the ledgers and keeping the business and the household in perfect order, Marin basically mimics, or even guides, Johannes’ own business moves. If she had been given the resources and the freedom to use them, who knows how far she would have gotten with her capabilities. Furthermore, Marin’s attitudes are essentially feminist, almost taken up entirely from the movement that started a couple of centuries later. ‘And some of us can work, back-breaking work, for which they won’t even pay us half of what a man could earn. But we can’t own property, we can’t take a case to court. The only thing they think we can do is produce children who then become the property of our husbands,’ she says after Nella complains about her own marriage to Johannes. For Marin, marriage is a trap, she made Johannes reject her suitor because she ‘couldn’t tolerate being a wife’; marriage was a waste to her since she already had wealth and a household to run, the only kind of influence a woman could hope to exert at the time. Ironically, it is the very thing that she condemned and tried to escape that brought her down in the end.
Clever and Compelling Story
Despite some of its flaws, there is much to like in The Miniaturist. The portrayal of the 17th-century Amsterdam is delightful and the story itself is well-researched, clever, compelling, and artfully told. The microcosm of the doll-house mirrors the Brandt household which in itself mirrors the life in Amsterdam and the world in general. The structure, the gripping pace, and the universal message of the novel make for an entirely delightful read.
© 2017 Erna G.