Like Henrik Ibsen’s Nora Helmer, Petronella Oortman appears to be living the dolls’ house life at the start of Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist.
It is 1686, and 18-years old Petronella has just been married off to the older and much wealthier Johannes Brandt. Transplanted from her countryside world to the overwhelming cityscape that is Golden Age Amsterdam, Nella finds herself trapped in an affectionless marriage, in a household to which her addition appears to be, at best, of no consequence
The source of much of Nella’s dread is Marin, her sister-in-law, at once controlling, confrontational and secretive. The latter quality is also one that Johannes brings to the marriage, to much dramatic consequence as the novel progresses.
Nella’s prospects, given the circumstances are, as they say, not encouraging.
The immediate atmosphere of the novel is foreboding and oppressive, with the claustrophobia of the Brandt household being intensified by the puritanical mood of the city at large. Sensory pleasures – art, gastronomy, sex – are partaken in the depths of privacy, often in contravention of actual decrees set down by Amsterdam’s Calvinist burgomasters.
Enter the dolls’ house – the novel’s literal and literary centrepiece – an indulgence as recompense, from Johannes to Nella, to temper her ennui.
Crafted and furnished by the titular miniaturist, the dolls’ house, a replica of the Brandt home, serves as a trope for the plight of the household’s inhabitants, even as it draws the novel to the threshold of magic realism.
Initially merely, and innocuously, reflecting the domestic goings-on, the miniaturist’s work soon foretells and even appears to manipulate the life and fate of the characters. This is Ibsen’s play as re-imagined through the lenses of M.R. James’s The Mezzotint. Its sustenance is derived from the horror of each revelation, each discovery, and the helplessness accompanying each inevitable outcome.
As a masterpiece in detailing, the dolls’ house, in all its exquisiteness, distracts us – as it does Nella – from the strains on the imagination in which Burton’s storytelling places us. And while we are continually tempted to point out implausibilities in the plot, the very basis of the dolls’ house on an actual artefact, owned by an actual Petronella Oortman, dissuades us from over-investing our incredulity, and we instead focus on the richness that resides in the novel’s other concerns, some of them universal and timeless. (Rijksmuseum)
Certainly, the novel and its protagonist bring to the story a distinctively 21st century sensibility. But the young woman yearning to make her own way in an unhelpful world is the stuff of literature that has been with us for a long time. In fact, our received perception of the confinement of women to the domestic sphere may in itself be an affectation of cultural and social mores. It is indeed difficult to fathom a world untouched, unaffected by womanhood.
More importantly, The Miniaturist demonstrates, by its aestheticisation of the domestic sphere, that the enclosure of the female experience is possibly as much an invention as any act of fictionalisation. Through the dolls’ house, “lives may be imagined, possessions held, and existence shaped in ways perhaps unavailable in full scale.” (James E. Bryan; qtd. in Broomhall and Spinks 105) And more importantly, the dolls’ house, as it is deployed in The Miniaturist, reveals the female experience as active, even subversive. The men in the novel are variously passive (Johannes), submissive (Frans) and subaltern (Otto). And where dolls’ houses traditionally demonstrate the role-playing of domestic responsibilities, the novel inverts this by extending women’s abilities outwards, beyond the confines of home life. It is in their home life that the characters encounter the most constraints on their activity.
Symbolically, the place of Nella’s dolls’ house is also reconfigured, sequestered in her own room, rather than displayed in the common area, to be exhibited for the wealth and prestige that they embody. (Broomhall and Spinks 121) In fact, the domestic space requires protection from intruders. Each time an outsider enters the Brandt home, crisis ensues: the Meermans dinner, Jack’s two visits, the St George Militia, even the birth of the baby. The domestic experience, according to the novel, can only be defended, when the women are allowed to organise and thrive in the world at large.
And if the novel’s various plot points remain unresolved, it is because the woman’s work is not – cannot be – completed. In that sense, Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, appears primed for serialisation. Here, we can hopefully look forward to further adventures for the dolls’ house and its occupants.
Jessie Burton. The Miniaturist. Basingstoke: Picador, 2014.
Broomhall, Susan and Spinks, Jennifer. Early Modern Women in the Low Countries: Feminizing Sources and Interpretations of the Past. Surrey: Ashgate, 2011. Print.
Rijksmuseum. Dolls’ house of Petronella Oortman, Anonymous, c. 1686 – c. 1710. Web. 05 March 2015. <https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/collection/BK-NM-1010>.
Lim Lee Ching