At its worst, the historical novel can be a kind of museum diorama: a grand and obsessively detailed but ultimately lifeless reconstruction of another period behind glass. If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably read it anyway, or at least try. When a historical novel is good, though, it’s so darn good. The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton’s debut novel, is the kind of historical fiction that reminds us to let in a little light and air: this is not a stuffy period piece, but an enjoyable historical novel with generous side of magic realism.
The Miniaturist is set in 1686 during Amsterdam’s waning Golden Age. The Amsterdam we come to know in the novel is richly rendered and full of contradictions: material excess and wealth abut conservative social codes and, meanwhile, an even more Puritanical energy seems to be taking root among the people. Petronella Oortman, or Nella as she’s called in the novel, arrives in Amsterdam as a wide-eyed young bride with good blood and fallen fortunes. She has been hastily married off to her new husband, the wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt; in exchange, he will help her family out of the debt accrued by her late father. In her exciting new life in the big city, Nella is suddenly mistress to a house that appears to be full of secrets and intrigue. Her merchant husband is emotionally and often geographically distant, and Nella doesn’t know whether she can trust the house’s other inhabitants: her stern sister-in-law Marin, and the household servants Cornelia and Otto.
Early in the novel, Nella obtains a dollhouse as a gift from her husband. The novel was in fact inspired by such an object of conspicuous consumption: a “cabinet house” once owned by the real Petronella Oortman that the author saw on a visit to Amsterdam. The actual cabinet house is on display at the Rijksmuseum, but thanks to the wonders of the Internet you can view it and other historical dollhouses by clicking over to the museum website. The Miniaturist is not intended to be a biographical piece about the real Petronella Oortman who was, in fact, a wealthy widow by the time she married Brandt. Instead, it’s a fun fiction arranged around the set piece of the dollhouse. In the author’s own words, “Her cabinet house is a thing of beauty, an exact replica of her real abode, at the same cost. I was inspired by her decision to spend thousands of dollars on a house she could not inhabit, food she couldn’t eat, and chairs she couldn’t sit on. Why did she do that?” The book’s plot grew out of this imaginative speculation rather than historical fact, and what results is a lush and engaging historical fantasy.
As Nella settles into her new home and begins to distract herself by furnishing the dollhouse with the finest miniatures that money can buy, she begins to notice odd similarities between her doll house and real life that seem to go well beyond the superficial. Or is she imagining the similarities? I’m going to stop here, though, for fear of spoiling anything. The interplay between the miniature world and the wider world, the replica and the real thing and, eventually, between Nella and the miniaturist is what makes this novel so fun.
The Miniaturist has been marketed as historical fiction but it is really historical fantasy, and it seems to have turned off many readers who were impatient with either the magical elements of the story or the departure from fact. If you come to this novel looking for the historical exactness of the Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall or Bring Up the Bodies, you will likely be disappointed. If you don’t much care where the story comes from as long as it’s well told, though, you’ll enjoy this book. It reminded me a bit of Sarah Dunant’s excellent novels The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan, as well as The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch, but with the magical stylings of the All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness. What’s that old adage about never letting the truth spoil a good story? Once I decided to give myself over to the storyteller and quit fact-checking, I thoroughly enjoyed the book for what it was: a very imaginative, immersive, and atmospheric novel that whisked me off to a period I don’t often get to see rendered in literature.
Melissa is writer who lives with her husband and two warring felines in Portland, Oregon. When she isn’t reading, writing, or cooking, there’s a good chance she’s trying to clicker-train her cats.