Jessie Burton | “I think often people from the past get crystallised but I’ve always liked that idea of trying to capture and grasp how people would have thought and behaved”

Jessie Burton | “I think often people from the past get crystallised but I’ve always liked that idea of trying to capture and grasp how people would have thought and behaved”

In last week’s issue of The Bookseller we wrote about the proliferation of creative writing courses in the UK and the blockbuster deals the latest generation of graduates have been getting. One of these graduates is Jessie Burton, one of the inaugural Curtis Brown Creative students, whose début novel The Miniaturist was bought by Picador after an 11-publisher auction. It has now been sold into 30 territories around the world.

The Miniaturist (July) is set in 1686. It tells the story of Nella, a young girl who is married off to wealthy and controversial merchant trader Johannes Brandt, and must leave her modest home for his grand townhouse on the Herengracht canal in Amsterdam.

Nella is sweet, naïve and full of opinions. Johannes is distant, aloof and unwelcoming to his new, eager bride. He does give her a gift, however—a beautiful cabinet-sized replica of their home, the presence of which dramatically affects all of the (life-sized) house’s residents. Based on the real-life dolls house of Petronella Oortman (around eight feet high, it is now housed in the Dutch capital’s Rijksmuseum; it was during Oortman’s time deemed to be one of the great wonders of the world), The Miniaturist is an impressive mix of historical fiction and a coming of age story.

Burton says she first saw Oortman’s dolls house in 2009, “and I just couldn’t stop taking photos of it, the guard was getting really annoyed, but it was just so stunning and beautifully made it and it just drew everyone in. The city just drew me in as well, and when I started the research I realised it was a really juicy time in Holland’s history: things were on the rot, it was no longer the heyday and cracks were showing in the Dutch East India Company. So you had this tension between wealth and potential disaster and boom and bust—I found there were many parallels with our society, with its restrictions on individual freedoms and the power of money and wealth.”

Feeling sociable

Nella’s initial concern is the lack of progress in her marriage with Johannes, but it is actually her ever-changing relationship with Marin—his sharped-tongued, unmarried sister—that gives the book its heart, as Nella slowly begins to understand the real truth about the confusing family that is in conflict around her.

“Nella is this irresistible combination of confidence and ignorance, as I certainly was at 16. But as she makes discoveries, the world opens up and she is forced to see people for who they really are. In some ways it is a classic rites-of-passage novel about a young girl who travels from the country to the city, but I hope as it unfolds it is also quite subversive,”

Burton says. “It is obviously historically based, but I didn’t want it to be unreachable. I wanted the reader to be able to imagine the characters here, now. I think often people from the past get crystallised but I’ve always liked that idea of trying to capture and grasp how people would have thought and behaved, and how little it will have changed to how we think and behave.”

Towards the end of The Miniaturist, Nella describes her sister-in-law as someone who “in another life could have led an army”, and Burton says that over time Marin—who developed more and more in all of her various drafts of the novel—“just became so real to me and so interesting. She was such an embodiment of women of the time who had a brain but couldn’t do anything with it.”

The “miniaturist” herself is a mysterious presence in the book, toying with Nella’s emotions as she creates more and more small-scale, beautiful objects for the dolls house. Burton describes the miniaturist as a “gameplayer”, revealing home truths to Nella even if they are unwelcome.

“I tried to tread a line with her elusiveness,” Burton says, “but she is just really observant and there is this duel throughout the book between seeing and not seeing and what you choose to see in order to stay alive. The miniaturist sees everything—because she is looking. I wanted to run parallels between her and Nella, because as the book goes on Nella takes on the qualities of strength and observance and independence of mind that the miniaturist has. Marin is also a miniaturist—she manipulates people as well.”

Burton wrote and researched The Miniaturist in tandem, making a second trip to Amsterdam in 2012—when the novel was in its fourth iteration—with “really specific” questions to answer. But despite wanting to get the historical elements right, much like a child playing with a dolls house, Burton herself was able to invent what was happening behind the closed doors of the Brandts’ home.

“Obviously you are constrained by a degree by historical accuracy, but I also felt that the dynamic within the house meant that the rules of society could go slightly out of the window. They are unorthodox, they don’t run along societal lines. Obviously they are all affected by economic and cultural diktats, but within the house there are some really individualistic, singular existences. Everyone is allowed to speak their mind, which is something very new to Nella. It is almost a kind of utopia inside that house, albeit with its own secrets and tensions, but they all have to behave so differently outside.”

Publication 03.07.14
Formats EB/HB (£12.99)
ISBN 9781447250913/890
Rights Sold into 30 territories
Editor Francesca Main, Picador
Agent Juliet Mushens, The Agency Group

1982: Born in London
2000-2004: English and Spanish at Brasenose College, Oxford
2005: Drama degree at Central School of Speech and Drama
2005-present: Actress in various productions for the National Theatre, Sailsbury Playhouse, Bristol Old Vic and Donmar