Bestselling novels inspired by 17th century Dutch works of art are getting to be a hot literary sub-genre. First came Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, then Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. And now Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, a debut novel that sparked an 11-publisher bidding war, is being published in 30 countries and has filmmakers sparring over movie rights.
The inspirational artwork this time is a 17th century dollhouse owned by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, not a child’s toy but an intricately detailed replica of one of the sumptuous townhouses that lined the city’s system of canals, many of them still occupied today, centuries after they were built.
The “cabinet house” was commissioned in 1686 by Petronella Oortman, who owned the house it was modeled on and paid as much for the miniature as a full-size townhouse would have cost, furnishing it with custom-made items such as minuscule porcelain dishes from China, tiny oil paintings by noted artists and hand-carved, elf-size furniture.
Burton was a British actor with a less-than-stellar career when she saw the cabinet house during a visit to Amsterdam in 2009. Struck by its microcosm of domestic life, she spent several years writing this book. The result is a historical novel as richly detailed and as claustrophobic as one of those townhouses — and a six-figure book deal for Burton.
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Little is known of the historical Petronella Oortman, but Burton borrows her name for the book’s main character. Raised in a small town in a family with a respectable name but little money, Nella at age 18 enters into an arranged marriage with an Amsterdam merchant twice her age, a not-uncommon circumstance for the times.
Coming from a warm upbringing, Nella is unprepared for her new home. At first glance, her husband, Johannes Brandt, seems as if he might be the hero of a stock romance. He’s fabulously wealthy, urbane and dashing, even a bit piratical, as befits a man whose business requires global travel. But he remains aloof from his new bride, treating her with courtesy, but he’s far more demonstrative with his dogs, Dhana and Rezeki, a beloved pair of whippets.
Johannes is rarely home, leaving Nella to the untender mercies of his sister, Marin. A bright but harsh woman, unmarried despite her family’s fortune, Marin runs the household as if it were a business, and tries to tell her brother how to run his business, not a role open to women at the time.
Nella gets a warmer reception from the servants: Cornelia, a Dutch girl about her own age, and Otto, a black man whom Johannes bought from a slave ship while in Africa to be his manservant, and brought him to Amsterdam, where his skin makes him quite the curiosity.
But the house on Herengracht Canal is one of whispers and closed doors, and Nella is left mostly alone to fret over why her marriage is unconsummated. Johannes does make one tender gesture, though: As a wildly expensive wedding gift, he gives her the cabinet house and permission to spend whatever she wants to furnish it (much to the guilder-pinching Marin’s disgust).
In a business directory, Nella finds a “miniaturist” who will create to order the furnishings for cabinet houses like hers. She communicates by letter, never meeting with the miniaturist, and the first objects she receives delight her with their expert craftsmanship. A subsequent order, though, arrives with not only the items she requested, such as a lute and a wedding cup, but also others: a pair of chairs that are perfect copies of two in her parlor, a baby’s cradle and, most disturbingly, two tiny dogs, exact and lifelike copies of Dhana and Rezeki.
“Someone has peered into Nella’s life and thrown her off-center,” Burton writes. But Nella’s efforts to find the miniaturist and divine his “unreachable purpose” are no more fruitful than her efforts to reach her husband’s heart.
The story Nella begins to decipher from the mysterious objects, such as a passionate love note hidden in Marin’s room, grows more ominous by the day. She comes to realize that she has married into a family with immense power and wealth — Amsterdam was then at its height as a colonial power and merchant to the world, and all those extravagant townhouses and Old Master paintings were the conspicuous consumption of its 1 percent — yet even they can find themselves in peril when privilege collides with puritanism.
“Founded on risk,” Burton writes, “Amsterdam now craves certainty, a neat passage through life, guarding the comfort of its money with dull obedience.” For the city’s rich, indulgence in feasts and fine wardrobes is expected, but indulgence in other sins can prove lethal in a society ruled by its religion.
The Miniaturist is an impressive debut, though not a perfect historical novel. In particular, Nella, although an engaging character, seems perhaps too sophisticated, too modern for her era and background. But Burton has created a world that, like the cabinet house, draws us in until we feel dread and mystery and wonder.
Colette Bancroft reviewed this book for the Tampa Bay Times.