British author Jessie Burton’s first published book, The Miniaturist, has been building buzz in publishing circles since 2013, when it was one of the most sought-after submissions at the London Book Fair. Now this historical novel, set in a 17th-century Amsterdam that Burton evokes with great skill, is poised to win over readers.
Few debut novelists have their books snapped up in a heated auction like yours was! Can you tell us a little bit about what that experience was like?
It was extraordinary. You do not expect such a thing as a first-time writer—you just hope that one publisher will want it. When my literary agent told me there were 11 publishers joining the U.K. auction, I couldn’t believe it. After they had all put in their first bids, my agent left a message on my phone when I was at work. As I took down the message on a memo pad, I could barely concentrate, it was too much. To see all these venerable names, piling in for something I had written . . . it was completely surreal. And then for it to be selling in 29 other countries—it was almost so mad that I actually began to feel quite normal, because it was so outlandish, it must have been happening to someone else.
Nella is based on a real-life woman, although not much is known about her. How did you stumble upon this story?
I was in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 2009, when I saw the dollhouse which belonged to Petronella Oortman, the wife of a 17th-century silk merchant. She had commissioned it in 1686, and it was an exact replica of their real home. More intriguingly, she had ordered miniatures from as far away as Indonesia and Japan, and had spent the same amount of money furnishing these inaccessible rooms as she would have on a real house.
Dollhouses are often a symbol of something uncanny or magical. What do they represent to you?
The dollhouse is the site of imaginative freedom in an ironically confined space. Anything can happen inside a dollhouse, because the usual rules of physics have gone out the window. They are exact replicas of our lives and imbue us with a sense of control, and yet they still seem out of our reach, elusive and with a purpose of their own. They are a place of sanctuary for some, and fear for others.
Nella is a country girl who must navigate the social structure of Amsterdam—and it’s a complicated one. What would have been the differences between the way country women and city women were expected to behave? Or married women and single women?
A lot of a woman’s experience of society depended, as it ever does, on how much money she had. But in terms of coming from the country—in her rural childhood home my character Nella had more freedom to roam and play with her younger siblings. She also learned about the facts of life and was closer to nature. In the city of Amsterdam, she had to learn to abide by stricter civic rules and rituals, a more performative kind of life that a character like Agnes has tried to perfect.
Single women traditionally married later in Holland than their European counterparts, so if you were from the working classes you would have learned to fend for yourself. You may have had less societal pressure on you than if you were a high-born woman, but you would have had no protection had you fallen on hard times. Women were the heart of the family, they were encouraged to develop and nurture their children and the domestic sphere, because it was considered the microcosm of the state—a happy home, a happy city. Rich women were collectors of paintings and ornaments, they did order their households, but their social role was very much a supporting one. They did not take positions of public authority, unless it was as wealthy benefactresses of orphanages and charities. And these were only the super-rich.
How do you think you would fare if you were transported back to the time your novel is set?
Good question! It strikes me that as long as you “behaved” yourself, you could get by well enough. But I don’t know really how well-behaved I am . . . lower-class women often worked as seamstresses, and I can’t sew very well, so that’s out. I’d try and get work in a baker’s or a confectioner’s, so at least I’d be somewhere warm, surrounded by things to nibble on. But with societal restrictions on what jobs women could do and what spaces they could occupy, if you really wanted adventure and a more varied life, the only hope would perhaps be to marry some money so that you had some capital, and therefore potential room for maneuver. How depressing!
The mystery of the miniaturist has an ambiguous solution. If it’s possible without giving too much away, could you talk a little bit about how you developed that story thread, and why you left it the way you did?
For me, a big part of the book is about the issue of perception. People often see what they need to see, or want to see, in order to survive and make sense of life. I created the miniaturist as an agent of change, a character who was on the periphery and yet absolutely central to the heart and spirit of the book. She is a comment on creativity, on agency, on the nature of self-realization and what we do to get through this life. For some people her actions are benign and progressive, for others, they are malicious. This is because there is no objective reality. I felt no desire to over-explain. Life is strange, threads are left hanging. Nella wants to know more about her just as much as many readers might like to, but that is the point; sometimes things are elusive, and I encourage the reader, should they so wish, to make up the ground.
What are you working on next?
I’m writing a novel called Belonging. It’s set in the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and the London art world of the 1960s. A Spanish artist is disgraced and disappears, and when his works reappear thirty years later in a London gallery, a woman is forced to confront the secrets she’s been trying to keep hidden.
Author photo by Wolf Marloh.
RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of The Miniaturist.