Jessie Burton’s debut novel The Miniaturist packs a lot of plot and history into its 537 pages. The action takes place in Amsterdam over the course of 3 months, from October 1686 into January 1687, and focuses on the oppressive social and religious restrictions that operated within a booming and expanding economy during the Dutch Golden Age. Eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman, whose family name is old and respected but whose fortunes have faltered, has made a fine match with Johannes Brandt, a successful businessman some 20 years her senior. Nella gladly moves from her small agricultural town to bustling Amsterdam. She soon discovers, however, that the Brandt household, which includes Johannes’ severe sister Marin, the maid Cornelia, and an African manservant named Otto, contains many secrets. While Nella is initially frustrated by being kept in the dark and treated like a child, her eventual enlightenment and its source — the miniaturist — disturb and change her and reveal grave danger for the Brandts.
For about the first third of the book, Burton seems to be channeling gothic romance a la the Brontes and Daphne du Maurier. Nella is our plucky heroine who is innocent to the ways of the world and is underestimated by many; she wants to be a good wife and would do anything for Johannes’ attention. Johannes is handsome, remote and secretive, barely spending any time with Nella and always working behind closed doors. Marin is like Mrs. Danvers, with her austere manner and withering stares generally directed at Nella. Cornelia is the rescued orphan who listens at keyholes, and Otto is the kind but quiet servant who seems indispensable to the running of the household. While Nella is technically the mistress of the house, it is Marin who in fact runs the show; she not only oversees household functions but also takes a keen interest in her brother’s business deals and is goading him to sell the sugar that their friends the Meermans have entrusted to him. To keep Nella busy, and as a wedding gift, Johannes gives her what is essentially a dollhouse — a replica of their own home. The cabinet is large and exquisitely made, having cost Johannes a considerable sum of money. Marin is annoyed that money was thrown away on such frivolity while Nella is offended to have been given a gift usually given to young girls who need to practice how to manage a household. Moreover, the miniature house seems to give off a dark vibe; even the dogs bark at it. Nonetheless, Nella makes the best of her situation and, with her husband’s blessing and funding, commences furnishing her gift. She hires a mysterious miniaturist to make particular items for her little home, but she gets much more than she bargained for. The miniaturist sends along additional unrequested items that puzzle and then alarm Nella. This person, whom Nella never meets, is either a spy privy to the family’s secrets or a prophet who can foresee events that will befall them.
Once Burton sets the stage for her reader (one expects to find a crazy woman in the attic or some other haunting presence from the Brandts’ past), she slowly unveils the real and explosive secrets surrounding the family. While some revolve around the stock problems of romances (unrequited love, forbidden love, frustrated ambitions, jealousy), others are far more subversive and dangerous. I won’t go into particulars since that would ruin the fun, but all of these secrets are related to the oppressive atmosphere of Amsterdam under Calvinist influence. One of the strengths of the novel is Burton’s attention to historical detail and her ability to weave into her plot the overwhelming power of commerce and religion over everyday life. The Dutch East India Company, thanks to people like Johannes, brought wealth and prestige to Amsterdam. The guilds regulated most trades and tradesmen (it is important to note those that they don’t control in this novel). At the same time, religious authority, which influenced governing, insisted on a rigid morality; ostentatious signs of wealth were discouraged, regular church attendance was encouraged, and surveillance over one’s neighbors (and informing on any deviancy) was expected. Nella sums up this duality when she first meets Johannes and Marin at their home:
Souls and purses, she thinks, these two are obsessed with souls and purses.
Dutch society was oppressive in general, but there were added burdens for women, and the unfolding story of Nella and Marin in particular shows the limitations that women, even among the wealthy, faced. Yet for anyone in Amsterdam, transgressing the bounds of morality meant a risk not just to wealth and social position but to life itself. Nella, once she knows the family secrets, has to decide where her loyalties are and how she should act on them; she is forced to learn a bit about business and behave with a maturity and authority that has eluded her most of her life.
My one criticism of this novel is that so much of what Nella becomes is based on the almost magical influence of the miniaturist, who teeters on the edge of being a deus ex machina. I might have preferred that Nella’s enlightenment be rooted in her own powers of observation and intelligence rather than some external and unknown force leading her along. I also was somewhat dissatisfied with the ending, as it emphasizes “no more secrets” but has set up a family dynamic that still requires them. Still, the novel moves along at a quick pace and is hard to put down. I look forward to more novels from Jessie Burton.