Maps to the Self: Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist

DSCN1263 - Version 2Burton, Jessie. The Miniaturist. [Peebo and Pilgrim 2014] Toronto: Harper   Perennial, 2015.

The Miniaturist was Waterstones book of the year for 2014, and attracted highly laudatory reviews, many of which are quoted briefly before the half title page in my copy. I admit that I was somewhat swayed in my decision to purchase the novel by the high praise of other reviewers. I was also intrigued by the work’s setting: late seventeenth century Amsterdam, the latter days of The Netherlands’ Golden Age.

The novel covers events from October 1686 to January 1687 and follows Petronella Oortman a country girl newly married to the wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt as she arrives alone in Amsterdam and learns to live with her new husband and unmarried sister-in-law, Marin. Her marriage unconsummated, Nella must learn the ways of the city and find her place in her new home where it is Marin the sister not Nella the wife who runs the Brandt household with the help of the maid Cornelia and of Johannes’ manservant Otto, a freed slave whose skin much to Nella’s amazement “glows like a polished nut” (11). Despite Johannes Brandt’s being one of Amsterdam’s most successful merchant adventurers, the Brandt household harbours dark secrets.DSCN1232

A multi-layered novel, part mystery with almost gothic touches and part historical/social commentary, The Miniaturist draws the reader into the world of late seventeenth century Amsterdam, into the world of the haute bourgeoisie, the world of Calvinist and commercial values, a world from where the ships of the fabulously wealthy Dutch East India Company, the VOC, sail the oceans doing “everyone’s dirty business” (381) and come back to Amsterdam to rock at anchor surrounded by their own sewage. This Amsterdam is a confining place, its newly-built, tall narrow houses, tightly packed together along the frozen canals. This is a world of enforced neighbourliness, where civic-mindedness is but a restriction on freedom of spirit. Even the geography of the city itself functions metaphorically. Until one understands the way the canals radiate around the old heart of the city, Amsterdam can still seem somewhat labyrinthine and confusing. One needs the map. Nella has to navigate without a map.

DSCN1264 - Version 2We as readers are at something of an advantage over Nella because not only do we have an actual map of Amsterdam circa 1686 included in the novel, we also have our expectations of the novel form to help us navigate the work itself, which is well worth the voyage. In both its organization and thematic concerns, we discover in The Miniaturist a novel that can be seen as both traditional and somewhat experimental.

On the one hand, the third person narrative is very traditional as is the division of the work into parts and chapters with epigrammatic introductions, a technique that recalls the mode of early novels. However, Burton’s use of the present tense reflects a more post-modern sensibility. The divisions and biblical quotations, further, also serve to draw our attention to the constructed nature of the story, breaking the narrative and framing each episode, directing the reader towards a context for what follows. Burton also plays slightly with chronology, framing the whole narrative with the events of January 1687 but actually ending two days earlier than the events described in the opening of the novel. The use of actual historical personages and the inclusion of a photograph of Petronella Oortman’s cabinet house in the Rijksmuseum also situates us between the world of fiction and the world of historical reality. One cannot help realising that just as Nella tried to understand the narrative being fore/told through the figures and furnishings sent by the miniaturist to fill the cabinet house, we the readers are examining the elements of the novel to understand the import of the work as a whole. We cannot help but see parallels between our relationship with the author and Nella’s with the miniaturist. The Brandts are to us as the figurines are to Nella.DSCN1233

This multiplicity of focus is even more marked in the issues Burton raises. While the events of the novel are rooted in capitalism’s colonial beginnings, the work’s concerns are highly contemporary. Burton interrogates the construction of class structures and the nature of power, questions enforced gender roles and inequality, and critiques the systemic marginalisation of those perceived to be “other.” Despite the catstrophic events that lead to the novel’s conclusion, Burton asserts possibilities. Nella tells Pastor Pellicorne that “Things can change” (372), and the novel ends with an affirmation that the “loose threads” (391) of individual lives can be woven into “a hopeful tapestry” (392).  

DSCN1263 - Version 2Appealing equally to my emotion and my intellect—it is one of those books that the more one thinks about the more one realises just how carefully researched and tightly crafted it is—The Miniaturist is one of those books I was sorry to finish.





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