The Miniaturist: objects and the historical imagination

I read Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist recently and can’t remember ever reading a piece of fiction that contained so many threads and themes relating to my research. A warning here that this post contains a massive spoiler. Just the one though, and I won’t give away how it ends.

The Miniaturist follows the newly married life of Petronella (Nella) Oortman, a young Dutch woman in 17th Century Amsterdam. Nella has just married Johannes Brandt, a wealthy merchant, and at the beginning of the novel moves to his house on the Herengracht. Also living with Nella in her new home are Johannes’s sister Marin and their staff; Cornelia, an orphan; and Otto, a former slave (and the first black man Nella had ever seen).

Rather than intimacy and love, Johannes’s wedding gift to Nella is an exquisite dolls’ house, a mirror of their own house, which he encourages her to furnish and decorate. Nella contacts a ‘miniaturist’ to send pieces for the house, which start to mirror (or perhaps predict) the family’s unfolding lives and dramas. To the reader, the miniature house is not just a plot device, but also a portal to the past. Burton took her inspiration for the story from a beautiful dolls’ house on display in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. The house, which you can see an image of below, was owned by one Petronella Oortman in the late 17th Century.

Dolls' House of Petronella Oortman, c. 1686- c. 1710 - held at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. (WikiCommons)

Dolls’ House of Petronella Oortman, c. 1686- c. 1710 – held at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. (WikiCommons)

The Miniaturist is thus a celebration of museum objects and the power they can have on the imagination and how we connect with the past. Historical fiction is most often inspired by events and people, but The Miniaturist shows that the historical imagination can be equally fired by an object. To Jessie Burton, Petronella’s dollhouse represented a “site of imaginative freedom in an ironically confined space.” The dolls’ house also represents a complex history, one that intertwines women’s, economic, house, Dutch and fashion history, among many others. Complex histories and imagination are not (and indeed, should not) be incompatible – Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is another example of this. Objects and material culture more generally give historians, novelists, readers, museum visitors and anyone willing to pay attention a different look at the past than a text based document would. Ludmilla Jordanova has written on the benefits of visual and material culture for historical analysis in The Look of the Past, where she notes that “as in the present, so in the past, the sense of sight shapes experience.” Petronella’s dolls’ house in Rijksmuseum provides us, the visitor or the reader, with a sense and sight of the past. The Miniaturist provides the extra, imagined past too.

While little is known of the Oortman who owned the dolls’ house, we do know that she was married to a wealthy Dutch merchant in 17th Century Amsterdam. Burton’s The Miniaturist expands on these limited facts to create and portray a range of narratives and histories: through Johannes’s work we explore the history of the Dutch economy; alongside Otto, we are exposed to the impact of colonisation and the history of race; and through Johannes’s sexuality we are introduced to an Amsterdam where sodomy is illegal and can cost you your life.

Early on in the novel and in their marriage, Johannes avoids Nella’s bed. Their marriage is never consummated, and we follow Nella as she struggles to deal with an empty marriage bed, and an empty womb. Nella feels like she has failed as a wife, and as a woman – as she hasn’t produced an heir, she hasn’t fulfilled her role as a woman. Without giving too much away, and another heads up on the spoiler, Nella and the reader discover that Johannes is having an affair with another man.

Timely punishment depicted as a warning to godless and damnable sinners. Engraving depicting the Dutch massacre of sodomites. Published in Amsterdam, 1731 (WikiCommons)

Timely punishment depicted as a warning to godless and damnable sinners. Engraving depicting the Dutch massacre of sodomites. Published in Amsterdam, 1731 (WikiCommons)

The novel is set in late 17th Century Amsterdam, just a few decades before a massacre of homosexuals swept across the Netherlands. Although this history is not part of the direct narrative of The Miniaturist, the attitude towards (male) homosexuality is clear, and through arrest and trial, as well as personal discussions between Johannes’s family members, the reader is offered a clear representation of homosexuality in history. For someone who studies the representation of same-sex love in public history, The Miniaturist couldn’t really hit my research spots more.

When a guard comes to arrest Johannes and tells Nella of the “brutish thing” about her husband, his sodomy, the reader is offered an interpretation of the history of homosexuality in the early modern period:

The word hangs in the air…It is a word that sets dynamite under Amsterdam’s buildings, beneath its churches and across its lands, splintering apart its precious life. After greed and flood it is the worst word in the city’s lexicon – it means death and the guards know it.

What I liked about The Miniaturist is that there are so few objects (at least before the twentieth-century) that in some way represent the history of same-sex love and yet, this story revolving around an object does present such a history. While the object in the Rijksmuseum has no direct relation to the history of same-sex love it is possible to tell this history, as well as the history of race, with the addition of some historical imagination. The way Burton uses the dolls’ house also gives agency, a voice, and power to women.

The dolls’ house as museum object, although a beauty to look at, doesn’t tell these (hi)stories by itself. Instead, imagination and the novel turn it into an object that can teach people about the lives of some of the most oppressed groups in Western history: women, people of colour and homosexuals. The Miniaturist is well worth a read, and stands as excellent PR for museums and objects – their impact on visitors can be significant, and a little imagination can provide new ways to tell and explore unheard histories.

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