A typical review of Jessie Burton’s début novel begins thus: ‘After a summer of unprecedented hype…The Miniaturist is worse/better than advertised’. However, the following isn’t a typical review and, while I lack the expertise of professional critics, nevertheless I wish to redress the balance somewhat. In some respects, this supposed hype has denied Ms Burton’s novel a fair reading; indeed, it appears that some reviewers haven’t even read the book closely, judging by their outright factual errors (for example, the fuss about the freedom to travel unaccompanied that Golden Age women often enjoyed.) This series won’t merely be a list of negative points and counterpoints; I’d just like to offer an alternative opinion on a contentious issue or two while they’re fresh in my mind:

Thankfully, The Miniaturist has received numerous positive reviews. Still, some critics claim that there is an emotional ‘distance’ between reader and characters, as if the cast were, in effect, just pieces moved around a toy theatre stage. Now, this claim is moot, as I cannot know how the author intended her characters to be perceived by the reader. Given the manifest intelligence on display in the novel, though, I believe that a) the criticism is invalid and b) even if it were valid, in fact this would lend itself to the concept as a whole. If that appears to be special pleading on behalf of a novel I’ve grown to love, then the appearance is deceptive, as I shall explain.

I found myself not only completely invested in Nella’s fortunes and misfortunes but also in those supposedly ‘cold’ characters Marin and Cornelia who, initially at least, made Nella feel so unwelcome in her new life. For example, the scene in which the three women walked to church somehow charmed me into thinking that these people – apparently so different in personality and social status – had in a manner of speaking formed their own guild (of sorts), a society of women fending off the blows of the wider society governed by the men at the top with all the self-serving justification of tradition (the Church and its male servants; God and Christ set above marginalised, harmlessly ineffectual Mary; the heads of family households etc etc). This, of course, suggests that I’m reading too much into a minor scene but it’s emblematic of Ms Burton’s skill that so much can be read between the lines of ostensibly quiet moments like these. Nobody here is crassly shouting out loud about, say, Feminism or the superiority of women giving the lie to the convenient notion that the running of the world is best left to men. But, perhaps, the message is here nonetheless, and is heard despite our expectations of the roles unfairly accorded to women, those of submissive silence and small things (note that the all-knowing, all-seeing female power in this novel is a superlative crafter of such small but subtly resonant tokens), mere handmaidens to flawed gods. Men may have the ‘show business’ of this world, it whispers, but we women are behind the scenes, as of old, truly making the world work; what is more, only we understand that community – of bodies and minds – is the essence and mainspring of life.

In closing on this particular point, I maintain that The Miniaturist‘s main characters are hardly ‘distant’ – they are as subtly prismatic as a Rembrandt self-portrait. They share the burdens of heart and soul, all seeking release and relief. It takes the tiniest effort of attention and sympathy to look beyond the surface of appearances (I’m thinking of the forced gaiety of the master’s Self-portrait with Saskia in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and the alluring but ominously unstable canal-side reflection of Johannes Brandt’s expensive house) to reveal the full picture as it is meant to be seen. For certain, there are whispers both harsh and soothing drifting throughout the surface words, but they are familiar and have the ring of truth. We stand reflected in these entirely human characters and their concerns are universal ones.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Self-portrait with
Saskia in the Parable of the Prodigal Son

What if, though, there is an intended, deliberate distancing? What if the author actually means for us to view Nella, Marin et al as symbolic figures placed and manoeuvred within and without the dollhouse-as-city? Of course, Ms Burton is obliged to act as a puppeteer manipulating the lives of fictional others but how far does this vital influence extend? As an aside, Nella at once presides over her marital home and yet somehow the house and all it signifies looms balefully over her head, reminding me of the foreground figure eternally trapped between entrance and exit in Remedios Varo’s painting Ruptura. Let’s take a brief look at one piece of literature which deliberately celebrates its own air of unreality, and see whether The Miniaturist matches the appropriate criteria. The author and academic Camille Paglia defines Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest as an artificial conceit entirely, replete with characters within which we are not meant to discern any inner life. They are wilfully shallow creations, highlighting fittingly shallow motivations and societal conventions ripe for criticism; however, The Miniaturist demands more from its main players and has far more nuance resultingly. Earnest‘s characters lack heart and do not regret the absence – there is no equivalent glimpse into their passions similar to the discovery of the note secreted in Marin’s book, nor is there meant to be; so, as fleetingly attractive an intellectual concept as this schema may appear, Nella’s dollhouse is a tremendously important metaphor…but a metaphor it remains. In conclusion, the claim of distancing has no foundation, and it could be said that The Miniaturist‘s stage is acted upon by real, fictional people and not players.



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