Me and Jessie Burton! I never imagined I would meet the author of a book I picked up at my local indie bookshop Lindum Books. They run regular evenings with authors at The Collection in the city of Lincoln – I can’t wait to attend them again in the future. This was a great evening listening to Jessie Burton talk about her exciting debut novel The Miniaturist. Admittedly the book was displayed well, but I picked it up because it looked so intriguing. There was an element of mystery as well as a historical setting, plus a cover with a vintage bird cage and since I have a bird cage tattoo I am attracted to them all the time. I had read the book before the evening and loved it, so I was very eager to hear about how it was written and as a very amateur writer I am always interested in a writer’s inspiration and the writing process.
Jessie’s ability to tell stories means she is immediately engaging and natural with an audience. In her potted biography we learned she had a drama background and that definitely came across in her reading of the novel and during a humorous and lovely question and answer session. Jessie’s inspiration was a beautiful cabinet house in The Riijksmuseum, Amsterdam belonging to Petronella Oortman. The house is made up of 9 rooms that are so ornate and richly furnished that it cost as much as a real house. This fact and the sheer beauty of the piece piqued Jessie’s interest so much that she built her novel around it. Spending only ten days in Amsterdam but doing plenty of reading and researching, writing started using the name of Petronella Oortman but reimagining her as a new young wife entering Amsterdam for the first time. Nella needs to make a good marriage to support her family and marries business man Johannes Brandt who owns an incredible house in the wealthiest district of Amsterdam. However, when Nella arrives she is greeted by an open door and Johannes Brandt’s sharp tongued sister and housekeeper, Marin. Johannes buys Nella a cabinet house, an exact replica of the grand house they live in and its appearance in the novel is based on the one in the Riijksmuseum. Jessie did a reading of an early chapter entitled The Gift where Nella, disturbed by the fact she rarely sees Johannes in the day or at night, explores the house and starts to ask questions of Marin. It is a chapter where we see the beginning of an interesting tension between the two very different women and as Nella explores the house we start to see a major theme of the novel developing too; the conflict between interior and exterior worlds.
The questions began with one about research and how Jessie had gained her expertise in 17th Century Dutch culture. The audience also wanted to know how long the research process had been before she started writing. Jessie did most of her research the old fashioned way, by reading and writing in a piecemeal way (This amateur was pleased to know that writing while researching is ok). She shone some light into the publishing process too, it’s not as simple as getting an agent and then getting a publishing deal. There were 17 edits and 3 different drafts of the whole novel during the process and several different endings including one where every character had a happy outcome that was vetoed by her friends. One of the terms she used was to ‘write out’ something I was very interested in as a writing therapist where I am constantly using exercises to write out emotions and past experiences. She was referring to it as her writing process of working things out as she went along; there was no single moment where she sat down to write and it was all worked out with plot, characters and ending.
I learned an enormous amount about the culture the novel was set in and there were some interesting parallels with Lincolnshire. Jessie felt that the people of Amsterdam were in the strange position of having built their own land by draining the area using canals and dykes. This was very pertinent to me because my ancestors on my father’s side were Dutch and came over to implement the same system of land drainage here in Lincolnshire. Jessie talked about the tension between the immense wealth of the city and the people’s Calvinist principles as well as the interesting roles of women in the city who often married later than their European counterparts and worked in business with their husbands. She was also interested in their liberality in that area but their barbarity in others, such as the practice of drowning homosexuals with a millstone round their necks. The African character, Otto, was discussed in his historical context; apparently wealthy merchant’s coats of arms were decorated with black faces as well as buildings in Amsterdam -probably a nod towards the city’s involvement with the slave trade. Otto would never have received the magnanimity he enjoys in the Brandt household anywhere outside. One of the most interesting ideas to me was the exploration of interior and exterior decor and architecture. The grand house has rooms that are lavishly decorated, but they are mainly to the front of the house where they can be seen from the street or where they are seen by visitors. Similarly, Nella’s cabinet house is a condensed version of the home but only contains the best rooms and it takes the miniaturist’s pieces to highlight the similar difference between what the character’s show and what remains hidden. The revelations of these character’s private rooms and their private lives is what makes the novel so compelling.
I still can’t recommend this novel enough. It combines intelligent research and just the type of relationship tensions, secrets and surprises to keep you reading. There will be a certain character that will grab you and Jessie admitted to having a soft spot for Marin who comes across as abrupt and harsh, but does have incredible depths beneath the icy exterior. The miniaturist of the title is a shadowy figure who has more insight into the characters than anyone else but only ever appears in glimpses despite Nella’s efforts to find her. This was intentional and although Jessie was asked whether she was planning to write a sequel there are none at present. Jessie is writing a second novel and is finding that a completely different experience because she has less time and is under more scrutiny since The Miniaturist ended up in an 11 publisher auction and there are rumours of film rights being obtained. The new novel is provisionally titled Belonging and is set across two times; the Spanish Civil War and 1960s London. Even now, years later, I am intrigued by the mystical and spiritual character of the miniaturist who knows all but cannot be seen, and has an ending that’s very much unfinished.
Published by Picador 3rd July 2014.
I have remained a huge fan of Jesse and loved the BBC adaptation of The Miniaturist in 2017. I have also built up a signed collection of her novels The Muse and The Confession and of the children’s book, The Restless Girls. Her novels have been translated into 38 languages, and she is a regular essay writer for newspapers and magazines. The Miniaturist ended up being a Sunday Times number 1 bestseller in both hardback and paperback, and a New York Times bestseller. It sold over a million copies in its first year of publication, and was awarded the Waterstones Book of the Year, and Book of the Year at the National Book Awards. The Muse was also a Sunday Times number 1 bestseller in both hardback and paperback, and has sold more than 500,000 copies. The Confession is Jessie’s third novel, and became an immediate bestseller too.