Petronella Oortman, a wealthy Dutch woman, is immortalized in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam where her extraordinarily elaborate dollhouse, decorated and built between 1686 and 1710, is displayed. Featuring marble floors, specially-commissioned artwork, and porcelain dishes, this dollhouse is a couple (hundred) notches up from your typical Polly Pocket setup. It was this incredibly ornate, intricate piece of artwork that inspired Jessie Burton’s novel, The Miniaturist, which fictionalizes Petronella’s life and imagines the circumstances surrounding undertaking such a detailed and expensive project. Here, we chat with Burton about her inspiration, her work habits, and just how she conducted research on 17th century Amsterdam.
Bookish: Petronella Oortman was a real woman living in Amsterdam who owned a miniature cabinet house. What about her life inspired you?
Jessie Burton: It was her ownership of the miniature house that inspired me. 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? What was she lacking, or surfeiting, in her real life, that compelled her to spend so much money on a miniature world?
Bookish: What do you think the challenges are in fictionalizing a true story versus crafting one from scratch? Do you think you’ll continue to write historical fiction inspired by real figures?
JB: Although Petronella was a real person, there is little of her biographical life in the novel, except for her cabinet house. I have made her younger than her husband, a country girl, a fictional creation. I have taken Petronella’s name, and the fact she owned a house, and that’s it. The rest is complete fiction.
Choosing to fictionalize a true story in its own right is of course a complicated business. Subjectivity, multiple accounts, extant family members… it’s a thorny path, but one which can be highly rewarding. Personally, I would not be that interested in writing fiction based on real figures’ lives. The fun is in the fantasy.
Bookish: What fascinated you about the concept of cabinet houses and intricate miniatures in the first place?
JB: I was originally inspired by seeing Petronella’s cabinet house, in situ in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. You have to see it to believe it. A beautiful structure, both imposing and intricate, it immediately draws the eye and there’s always a queue to peer in. Then I started thinking about it in a novelistic way, and it quickly became such a rich source of inspiration. What fascinated me was the distance between us and the tiny world of the dolls’ house—it reflects us, but we can never penetrate it. It shows us things we haven’t seen—it comments both on our power and our powerlessness. It is an interior world of secrets, of hidden consequence, an illusion of closeness, locked away.
Bookish: Seventeenth century Amsterdam is a place you present as a world of jarring contradictions and very strict codes of conduct. How did you learn so much about how this unique society operated on so many levels?
JB: By reading books, mostly! There were a couple of excellent titles I referred to constantly— An Embarrassment of Riches by Simon Schama, and Well-Being in Amsterdam’s Golden Age, by Derek Phillips. They helped me immerse myself in the psyche of the Dutch in the declining years of their halcyon century, emphasizing the myriad contradictions and hypocrisies of their society. There was also another book, The Sensible Cook, written and published in 1671, and I took all the recipes that Cornelia the maid makes, from there, with a couple of my own riffs. I consulted contemporary paintings, of course, from the vanitas of Claesz, from de Hooch to Steen via Ruisdael—the Dutch were keen documenters of their lives and times, so there was plenty to absorb.
Bookish: The Miniaturist is steeped in intrigue on every page, while also blending through the narrative a richness of local color through food, clothing, and custom. Did you have the chance to travel to Amsterdam while researching or writing the novel?
JB: In total, I think I was in Amsterdam for seven days in the whole four years it took me to write The Miniaturist. The imagination, and the internet, can be a marvelous thing. But it is a city that immediately got under my skin, though. I adore it. It’s both very present to your senses, and a little elusive.
Bookish: How did you find time to write with your schedule as a working actress?
JB: I wrote it in theatre dressing rooms, during rehearsals when I wasn’t needed. If you’re in a show in the evening, you have the whole day free. But when I wasn’t acting, I was working as an executive assistant in the financial district of London. I would write on the way to work, or in quiet times. You just find the time if you’re determined enough, but you have to accept it will be a piecemeal process.
Bookish: Will we see more of Nella and her strange family in the future?
JB: I’m thinking about it! What happens next for them could be very interesting, given the unusual configuration they find themselves in at the end of the novel. There are so many possibilities.
Jessie Burton was born in London in 1982. She studied at Oxford University and the Central School of Speech and Drama, and still works as an actress in London. She lives in southeast London, not far from where she grew up.