An unusual novel set in 17th century Amsterdam, The Miniaturist creates the illusion of stepping into a Dutch genre painting of that period. The dim interior of a Vermeer domestic scene, subtly illuminated from a window to the left, or a Pieter de Hooch, Gerard ter Borch or Jan Steen, are all you need to know to have a sense of Petronella’s world.
This young woman arrives, by adult arrangement, fresh from an impoverished country background to be the wife of a wealthy shipping merchant. Johannes Brandt’s house on the Heerengracht Canal is peopled by several unusual occupants who include a freed slave, an adopted girl now a maidservant, and Johannes’s domineering spinster sister. The merchant himself is distant but not unkind, and gives her a most unusual wedding gift: an exquisite cabinet replica of their beautiful mansion. These exquisitely-crafted and furnished dolls’ houses were not children’s toys, but a creative occupation for wealthy Dutch townswomen during inclement weather. There are several of these in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and today provide us with an accurate inventory of Dutch 17th century costumes, customs, and interior decoration, created from the materials of the time.
Initially offended, for she feels treated like a child, it is “Nella”’s task to furnish her dolls’ house – thereby also keeping idle hands busy. This she achieves with the help of a mysterious miniaturist gleaned from a directory of bespoke Amsterdam craftsmen. This elusive craftsperson appears to have an uncanny knowledge of the intimate details of their lives, and provides minute, beautifully-crafted copies of the inhabitants and their belongings for the dolls’ house.
Nella gradually becomes au fait with the workings of the merchant’s household and unexplained business affairs, and soon finds herself embroiled in events that become increasingly out of control. Transforming from a simple domestic tale, the book soon begins to read like a thriller, and becomes a page-turner.
Several interesting themes are raised, such as the place of women in society in days gone by, and their social standing – or lack thereof. They have few rights, and little or no say in the governance of financial, commercial and political affairs. As the portraits of the time reveal: women were to be seen – preferably adorned with jewels, as an indication of their husbands’ success – but not heard. Some, like the merchant’s authoritarian sister, have some voice, but seldom is their wisdom and insight heeded. They resort to subterfuge, cunning and guile. There was no alternative. The relatively new Dutch Reformed religion, emerging from the Reformation of the previous century, and presided over by Pastor Pellicorne, is hypocritical and oppressive – the churches stripped of all adornment. This can be seen in the churches in Amsterdam today, hence the artists’ turning to genre work: pictures of interiors, sumptuous still lifes – especially banquets, landscapes, and portraits of the wealthy merchants and their wives and their estates. The thorny subject of the then illegal homosexuality is also raised, and evolved by Burton with a rather unconvincing thread.
I found the ending of the book sadly deflated, with obvious conclusions drawn, and several loose ends left untied, such as the identity of Marin’s lover remaining frustratingly undisclosed. The characters and their evolution are not entirely believable, and I found myself feeling disappointed once I’d read the last page.