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Novel set in Amsterdam in the 17th Century (plus author Q and A)
5th July 2014
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton, historical novel set in Amsterdam.
The swirling mists ripple along the canals of Amsterdam, the echoes of voices find their way through the chilly air, footsteps clatter over the cobblestones. The city of the 1680s comes alive in the capable hands of author Jessie Burton, a finely crafted story with a motley array of interesting characters. The smell of rot, canal and fish, the cold air spiking everyday life and the slap of water in the canals evoke the echoes of footsteps past.
Petronella Oortman arrives at her new marital home on the Herengracht in the Autumn of 1686. On arrival she is greeted by Marin, her husband’s sister and the two servants, Cornelia and Otto. On paper she may be married to Johannes Brandt but he seems to avoid her from the outset. The household’s hostile, suspicious welcome sets the tone for this eerie narrative, as she tries to settle into her new life, the wife of a wealthy merchant who travels the world in search of new merchantable goods.
No contact, with no wedding night – it is not the marriage she envisioned. Her husband almost seems to be avoiding her. As if to make amends for his inattentions, he arrives one day with a beautifully crafted doll’s house, a miniature replica of the marital house in which they live. She looks through Smits List and finds the details of a miniaturist of whom she asks just a couple of small items so that she can start to furnish her empty cabinet. And as the items and figures begin to arrive, so do the smoke and mirrors of her life on the Herengracht, played out over just a few months, as the icy grip of Winter plays host to human foibles and machinations with dire consequences. A top novel, enjoy!
Tina for the TripFiction Team
We were dying to pose some questions to really understand how the author has produced such a wonderful first novel. And here are our questions….
TF Petronella Oortman’s Cabinet House in the Rijksmuseum is the inspiration at the heart of the book. What was it about the cabinet that drew you to this storyline?
JB Several things. Firstly, because it was so enormous and beautiful, clearly the product of years of creative craftsmanship from all over the globe, as far as the Dutch Empire reached. Secondly, that it was an exact replica of Petronella Oortman’s actual house and cost the same as a real one to build and furnish! I thought this raised interesting questions about ostentation, surfaces, hidden spaces, the domestic and the private….
TF The book wonderfully captures the feel of 17th century Amsterdam, how did you go about researching the city of that era?
JB Thank you. I did it mainly by reading books! I read detailed social and economic histories of Amsterdam. I looked at paintings of the time – landscapes, still lifes, portraits, domestic interiors. The Dutch were avid documentarians of their own experience, which was very helpful! I read poems of the time, recipe books…and I visited the physical city twice to clarify architectural facts about buildings. When I wasn’t in the city, which was most of the time, I was on google maps and the internet!
TF One of the characters is Otto who is part of the Brandt household. As a black man, it must have been an unusual occurrence at the time for him to be so integrated into the family. How did you come to build his story?
JB I saw a painting in a merchant house museum on the Herengracht of a wealthy family. In the corner of the painting was a black servant, staring directly at the artist. When you start looking in the city, you begin to see evidence that Amsterdammers acknowledged the presence of Africans, but regrettably mainly as chattels. They were fetishised, working as musicians or pages, never on a par as citizens. Given that it was a port city with lots of travellers coming and going, perhaps there was more enlightened behaviour underneath public displays of superiority. I have tried to explore that in the book.
TF Are you planning another book and if so will location be important?
JB I am. Location will be important. I’m writing about Spain!
TF How did you come to writing and what would advice would you give to aspiring writers?
JB I had always written, much like many of us do when we’re younger – plays and poems, stories. I entered competitions, wrote pieces for friends. But I took it more seriously around 2008 and began to understand that writing a novel was a whole new ball game. My advice would be to read a lot, to appreciate that when you think you’ve got your story ready, you probably haven’t. Give it time to rest and come back to it in a month with fresh eyes. Take good advice, always, but remember sometimes you have to plough your own furrow. Don’t give up. Be bloody minded but flexible.
TF What is your favourite travel destination?
JB I don’t have one in particular; any travel is a treat. I have lifelong desire to go to Colombia and Ecuador, and Montana! I like warm places mainly, where the food is good and it’s not frowned upon to fall asleep after lunch.
Petronella Oortman’s dolls’ house has been a real inspiration to writers in 2014. Here we review The House of Dolls by David Hewson, set in Amsterdam and in which it also makes an appearance.